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Like the space it inaugurates, Ming Smith: Evidence revises the art world’s exclusionary past with an unflinching commitment to its own logic and sense of timing. 

In contrast to its more traditional surroundings, the white exterior and frameless glass door of Nicola Vassell Gallery — a much anticipated arrival in Chelsea — act as a beacon, beckoning visitors into a spacious yet intimate interior. Works in the gallery’s large first room are elegantly hung in a way that invites a slow, measured look at the selection of photographs which span Smith’s 50-year career. Unmatted, mid-sized black and white images in sleek black frames line the walls sparingly; each photograph, a statement, the frame its punctuation. 

I am immediately drawn to  “Hakone, Japan” (1991), a photograph of a mountainous landscape seen through and distorted by a glass pane with a hole in the middle. The creation of a frame within the larger frame of the image simultaneously recalls the technical aspects of photography while erasing all physical traces of the camera itself and even the photographer. The composition speaks to Smith’s track record as a photographer who both loves and riffs on the language of her medium.

On a neighboring wall,  a call and response relationship emerges between “Kites Inside (Columbus, Ohio)” (1972) and “Grace Jones, Studio 54 (New York)” (1970s). The fierceness of Jones’s dynamic persona is further accentuated by her proximity to a flying dragon. This cadence repeats all around the room with specific pairings that highlight Smith’s signature artistic choices. 

Ming Smith, “Sun Ra space II, New York, NY” (1978), gelatin silver print, 28 3/16 × 39 7/8 inches

For example, her unique ability to capture transitory states and moments bears out in “Sun Ra Space I”  and “Sun Ra Space II” (both 1978). The enigmatic performer’s presence is captured in the whirl of his cape as we see his back and later spectacled face mid-twirl. The blur produced by Smith’s slow shutter and the low light of the room capture non-physical qualities of the space which would otherwise be imperceptible to the camera. 

“Female Nude” and “Male Nude” (1977) — low-contrast images of dark-skinned bodies against botanical wallpaper — reposition these bodies in relation to their surroundings and each other. By limiting the tonal range of the photographs, Smith points to the deep richness of darkness and establishes a reciprocal (as opposed to comparative) relationship between female and male, figure and background. In this way, adjoining photographs are rendered as couplets, each wall becoming a stanza. 

Ming Smith, “Self Portrait as Josephine (New York)” (1986), archival pigment print, 36 x 24 1/2 inches

Fluorescent light emanates from a room full of rarely exhibited color photographs in one of the smaller gallery spaces in the back. These images, which still lean heavily on the camera’s ability to both reveal and obscure, electrify the almost-spiritual aspects of Smith’s work. A departure from the artist’s focus on black and white photography, their inclusion points to the full range of her consistent yet highly experimental practice. 

Both literally and figuratively, the establishment of a space led by Vassell, a seasoned leader in the New York art world and a rare Black woman gallery owner, signals the changing face of a Chelsea scene still finding its footing in conversations around equity and inclusion. It is fitting that the gallery’s first exhibition is of the work of an artist whose persistence and vision has made her a “first” on several occasions. For Vassell and Smith alike it is powerful to assert one’s right to a space in the canon without centering the erasure and institutional neglect which excluded one in the first place. Whether the uptick in Black leaders of gallery spaces will fall into patterns of tokenization is still to be determined. What remains clear is that in asserting (and not arguing for) one’s presence, historical revision is also revolutionizing the present and future.

Ming Smith: Evidence continues through June 26 at Nicola Vassell Gallery (138 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan). The exhibition will be followed by a special exhibition of Smith’s recent work celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the WNBA. JORDAN X MING SMITH: HERE FOR A REASON will be on view June 29–July 2, 2021. 

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