Emo Jungle, Josh Smith’s inaugural exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in New York City, resembles a retrospective in both size and organization. This is remarkable, considering its 133 large canvases and handful of sculptures are each dated 2019. That’s right, this year — all four months of it. Packed into the suite of galleries at Zwirner’s 19th Street location are paintings sorted according to Smith’s handful of innocuous preoccupations: reapers of the scythe-wielding Ingmar Bergman variety, schematic turtles, human skeletons with spider limbs, stick-figure devils, and a modest number of utterly forgettable ceramic traffic cones.
The event marks the artist’s entry into the blue-chip dealer’s international gallery network. This occasion must warm the hearts of those museum curators who earlier in the decade risked including Smith’s kitschy sunsets and dinosaurs in exhibitions at the New Museum and MoMA. Having caught the attention of Charles Saatchi, Jefferey Deitch, and Peter Brant, whose interest cannot be overstated, the foundation for Smith’s art-star tower is now set in place, awaiting the inevitable ascension into its dedicated airspace.
Mystified as ever by the rise of an artist whose work resembles the efforts of a tipsy Van Gogh in an art bar, my inner critic is now confronted with mostly disagreeable choices: 1) ignore him; 2) jump on the bandwagon, as the Brooklyn Rail did with a perfectly timed interview; 3) call attention, as I did in a 2015 review, to Smith’s blatant ineptitude; 4) ignore the bait of Smith’s bad boy aura and focus on the bigger picture.
Since that last one seems the most promising, I decided to reconsider Smith as a performance artist. I set aside the dopey, bumbling manner of his technique, the kitschy stencil borders, the garish dissonant color of the Reaper backgrounds, the clumsy drawing outlining his devils, and explored the possibility that Smith’s art is not in his painting but in the act of making the paintings. His performances, the many hours of relentless energy devoted to producing quantity, seem designed to create a self-taught, outsider artist look — a look that cannot be challenged with charges of insincerity the way Damien Hirst is often challenged. Smith’s labor is real and personal.
Because sincerity cannot be faked, Smith immerses himself in the role of outsider artist by creating an easel version of Konstantin Stanislavski’s method acting. The method, as it is often called, is founded on the premise that experience is superior to representation. It requires an actor to convey credibility in a performance by eliciting an emotional memory of their own that may parallel that of the character they portray. It is understood in the theater as an alternative to the practice of acting technique, or what one might call the skillful application of illusory gestures thoughtfully applied.
By indulging in a manic expenditure of labor for an inadequate period of time — the opposite of relying on skills and illusory gestures — Smith distracts himself from self-doubt, critical reassessment, or any of the other stumbling blocks painters face in their effort to produce work with human resonance and historical awareness. Sacrificing substance for credibility, Smith succeeds in nullifying whatever suspicions a viewer may have regarding his commitment to expressing his feelings.
But why? Credibility is typically offered to all artists as a courtesy. Only those who push radical ideas like appropriation are suspected of insincerity. As I stated clearly in my 2015 review, Smith’s sincerity is real. Yet his work still looks adolescent — all ambition and youthful energy yet plagued with undeveloped talent and a teenager’s infatuation with symbols of death.
His embrace of glut is another essential aspect of his method. One of the three large gallery spaces at Zwirner hosts a continuous band of fifty-five Turtle paintings, placed end to end, surrounding the viewer like a three-sided mural. Since they are individually titled and dated, and apparently composed as independent units — many with painted borders — their mural presentation reads as opportunistic. There is no compositional flow, like Monet’s “Les Nymphéas” installation at the Musée de l’Orangerie. There is no dynamic interplay of form, like Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” (1943). There is no episodic continuity, like Jennifer Bartlett’s gallery wrapping, “Rhapsody” (1975). There is no compelling embrace of repetition, as in the DIA exhibition of Andy Warhol’s “Shadows” (1979). Pollock’s Mural is particularly significant as it was until very recently associated with a story that the artist painted it in one long night of maniacal creativity. Conservators at the Getty have found that story to be demonstrably untrue, which is bad news for Smith and his sweaty painting campaigns.
And yet, the burlesque of an entire exhibition premised on producing over a hundred large canvases in less than four months may hold anti-establishment charm for younger painters frustrated by the sanctimonious atmosphere of MFA programs that propel them into an unresponsive art market. One can appreciate the ironic appeal of an artist who breaks through the logjam and the hypocrisy, brandishing sincerity while courting art speculators with an unrelenting supply chain of product. He has achieved the best of both worlds. An ambitious undertaking masterfully executed. Perhaps he may one day try his hand at ambitious painting.
Emo Jungle is on view at David Zwirner gallery (525 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 15.