King of Pain

A scar is a record, like an archival document permanently attached to the body and mind. It can be a physical or psychological mark that results from any manner of inflicted pain. We all have scars, and they are all linked to a memory. Your childhood may be a blur, but you remember that post-skateboarding, post-dog-bite, post-running-with-scissors emergency-room visit. There are also experiences that scar us invisibly by etching themselves indelibly into our psyche. They may cause the occasional mental twinge or, in the case of some people, the psychological equivalent of quadriplegia. Scars involve stories and frequently become anecdotes. The inquiry "How'd you get that?" prompts a tale that begins with "Well, there was this wood chipper"

Transforming scars into stories, usually with a liberal dose of black humor, lessens the pain we feel from them, takes them outside the person and makes them more abstract. "The Scar Show," by Dolan Smith, at Aurora Picture Show is the film-and-video venue's inaugural art exhibit. Smith has scars -- 86 of them, in a variety of shapes and sizes -- and the Houston artist presents them all in a cluster of works that are by turns comic, poignant, disturbing and a combination of all three. The stories are carefully lettered on odd-sized scraps of material -- plywood, sheet metal, hollow-core doors -- in a waste-not, want-not recycling aesthetic. The work is autobiographical. Yep, all that crap happened to him: hit-and-run car accidents, head injuries, ringworm, broken bones, stitches, stitches, stitches and more stitches. A dark current runs through the show; Smith's horrendous, comical misfortune is interwoven with stories of an über-dysfunctional family, mental illness, learning disabilities and personal tragedy.

Scar #68 (1999) is an oddly shaped wood fragment with a witty text that reads: "I contracted scabies from trying on clothes at Target in 1995. My girlfriend was really mad. dolen 1999." Scar #82 (1999) is displayed with a Swiss Army knife and tells one of many stories resulting from Smith's Christian Scientist upbringing. Smith received the new pocketknife and promptly managed to slice open his leg. The profuse bleeding necessitated a reluctant emergency-room visit. The text somewhat wryly reads: "I think my father was very disappointed that I did not call down Jesus Christ for an immediate and completely miraculous healing."

There are other stories about Smith's father, images that are less wry and far more disturbing and tragic. Sometimes a work pulls you in and then makes you wince. Smith is walking a fine line with his pieces; black humor dominates, but things intermittently turn pure, lightless black. The works function well as a group, playing off each other, creating fluctuating emotional responses. There is humor aplenty, but the raw source of it occasionally makes itself known.

Several pieces are remembrances from Smith's summer job working -- irony alert! -- as a nurse-in-training in a Christian Scientist nursing home/hospital/asylum. He naively took the job as a way to hang out in New York and look at art. The facility warehoused a variety of suffering. Scar #75, Hospital Scar (1999) poignantly details the sad dignity of a hideously disfigured woman suffering from elephantiasis. While the nurses labeled her Patient No. 403, Smith privately thought of her as "The Dragon Lady," a kind of poised and tragically regal monstrosity. Scar #44, Pizza Man is ickily comic as Smith describes having to bathe a leper after the other male nurse snapped and decided he was Lena Horne.

Autobiography is a tough thing to pull off in art, but Smith manages it fairly successfully because the works have meaning beyond self-centered stories. They resonate with the human experience. People viewing the works start trading their own scar stories. Smith encourages this by supplying the "Scar Shelf," as well as stacks of painted scrap wood on which viewers can contribute their own stories. One small square of wood has "Vietnam" succinctly written on it in ballpoint. Another reads: "Stuck my thumb in the table saw. MH 99." Two wood chunks are stacked side by side. One tells of receiving stitches after a Lush concert that sucked, and the other reveals the writer's mother's attempts to abort her by throwing herself down the stairs.

Smith's most striking piece is Scar Man (1999), an eight-foot jointed wood figure, made from pieces of scrap plywood, with a rough-hewn aesthetic. Descriptions of scars are written in the location of the various injuries -- concussions, hematomas, a strangulated hernia. The surface is covered, and even the plywood genitalia silhouette is not immune. Did you know some people have violent allergic relations to spermicidal products?

The rough wood walls of the former church that houses Aurora Picture Show complement Smith's haphazardly hung objects. There is a straightforward crudeness, but not carelessness, in the fabrication of the work. It has a directness usually associated with folk art, one that would seemingly belie Smith's master's degree in art. The careful printing and quirky misspellings that viewers have characterized as "quaint" are actually the result of dyslexia, not disingenuous naíveté.

Smith has caught flak, often from other artists, for the intensely personal nature of some of the works. Is it art as therapy? Is it perpetuating the stereotype of the artist as tortured soul? Smith's work has enough wit and self-aware irony to avoid most of those pitfalls, but it is possible to reveal too much, and even to exploit yourself. There are brief flickers of self-consciousness in "The Scar Show," but the writing is predominately frank, direct and without melodrama. Tone is crucial, and the show as a whole is extremely compelling.

Looking at the work, you feel a need to concentrate on the comic aspects, and not on the stuff that makes you squirm. With a couple of the pieces, your gut reaction is "Oh, don't tell people that!" But should he make things easy for us? He could neatly edit it all into a black-humor extravaganza in the way comedians with tortured pasts make things entertaining, with only a modicum of discomfort, for audiences. The unedited matter, however, challenges and provokes the viewer. Writers often explore difficult personal stories, yet when something is presented on a gallery wall, instead of between the discreet covers of a book, we somehow react to it differently. It seems more vulnerable.

In the end, Smith's work is not just about the absurdity, comedy and tragedy of his life, but that life is absurd, comic and tragic. Who can't relate to that?

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer