Keith Smith, The Fabric Works, 1964-1980 @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 photographic works/objects, generally unframed and displayed against white walls in the main gallery space (including the ceiling)8, the front room, and the entry area. The works on view use a combination of processes: color scan heat transfers to cloth, cyanotype on cloth, gelatin silver prints sewn to cloth, collage, hand coloring, photocopy, photo-silkscreen, with both hand stitching and machine sewn elements. The show includes standard gelatin silver prints, and a variety of photo-based quilts, cloth pieces (satin, bedsheet, Smith’s own clothing), handmade books, and a pair of shoes. Physical sizes range from roughly 8×2 to 110×48 (with each piece sized differently), and all of the works are unique. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the byproducts of the digital photography revolution, and in particular the explosion of newly available printing options, is that many contemporary photographers have come to the simplistic conclusion that these new photo/objects are somehow wholly original and that there are few if any historical precedents for what is being done today. This well-edited show of Keith Smith’s fabric works should throw some cold water on the mistaken and the uniformed – it is stark proof that Smith was experimenting with versions of these same exact ideas some 40 years ago, and doing so with thoughtful intelligence and a sense of radical innovation. Armed with our current collective interests in scanning, rephotography, exotic substrates, and genre-bending hybrid photographic objects, Smith’s early work is full of lessons and learnings that strongly resonate with today’s cutting edge approaches. Standing in the gallery, I felt a dissonant look-backward-to-go-forward feeling, as if those intervening decades had collapsed and disappeared and Smith was once again one of the young cohort aggressively pushing on the boundaries of the medium.

For those interested in the use of scanning and copying, Smith’s works provide plenty of entry points. Some begin and end with color scans of Smith’s own face smashed and distorted against the glass of the copier, images which are then incorporated into more elaborate constructions and sewn objects. Others go further and make direct heat transfers to cloth, taking scanned images (often from a 3M Color-in-Color copier) and adhering them to silk or satin, giving the images a woven, undulating texture and surface. Smith then used the cloth pieces to create composite life sized bodies/self-portraits, intricate basket woven compositions, and quilted geometric patchworks and aggregations. In one particularly experimental work, Smith removed the mylar roll from the printing machine and heat transferred the images to zinc etching plates, which were then placed in an acid bath and used to “etch” onto cloth; the result is 30 panel full body figure in shadowy brown/grey relief, almost like a stone rubbing or a shroud.

Another set of works explores series and repetitive imagery by transferring contact sheets and image strips to cloth via the cyanotype process. Orange groves, horses, dirt roads, the water’s edge at Point Lobos – they’re all turned into gridded forms and narrative elements that feel loosened by the surrounding sewn angles. An earlier version of this idea (done for Ken Josephson’s class in 1965) took the form of a single image of an eye turned into halftone dots and then repeated throughout a photo-silkscreened quilt in varying colors. As these concepts evolved, Smith was also able to tune his colors by mixing the blue of the cyanotype with different colored underlying fabrics – thus, a simple yellow fabric plus the blue process creating varying tones of greens, image and substrate combining to create end result color; some works ended up with as many as six separate colors of imagery, and at least one used the sun as his light source (as Sam Falls has done more recently).

With a mother who was a seamstress, Smith was clearly adept with a needle and thread, and so nearly all of these works involve some kind of sewing – either as a decorative element, a binding approach, or both. Hand stitching was mostly used for collage elements and handcrafted additions, while machine stitching was better for attaching prints to cloth more securely or doing large scale quilting operations. While we now routinely use the verb “stitch” to explain digital manipulations and connecting of images, Smith’s works are full of old school craftsmanship, with hanging strings, loose threads, needles, and uneven stitches reminding us of the physicality of the objects and his interventions. We might also reasonably tie the recent resurgence of embroidered photographs back to Smith and his early geometric patterns, sewn books, and overlaid designs.

Perhaps the most amazing (and quirky) photo-object in this show is a set of saddle shoes that Smith transformed in 1965. The white toes of the shoes have were covered with photographic emulsion and exposed by a negative in a generally normal fashion, creating overlaid images of ghostly feet and toes that seemingly inhabit the shoes – it’s as if we have X-ray vision and can see through the leather. Somebody buy these and put them in a museum (and find a picture of Smith wearing them to an opening), as they are both surreally clever and amazingly prescient about what has come along since in image/object thinking; they’d likely be a crowd pleaser as well.

Even more so than the finished artworks themselves, this show is just brimming with photographic ideas. The weaving of cloth images and paper ones, the interlayering of quilt patterns, the flattening and reassembly of scanning/photocopying, the intentional management of distortion, the extension of collage into three dimensions of surface and texture – Smith was testing each one, trying to figure out how photography might fit in. This show should be on the required syllabus of every young photographer bent on demolishing the limits of the medium, not because they should acknowledge that Smith got there first (which he did), but because he deserves to be a mentor and inspiration to those following in his footsteps.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $7000 to $75000. Smith’s fabric work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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