Professor Sable Elyse Smith in Solo Show at Regen Projects

Mădălina Telea Borteș
October 26, 2023

Assistant Professor of Visual Arts Sable Elyse Smith presented Fair Grounds, a solo show at Regen Projects in Los Angeles. 

For Fair Grounds, an exhibition concerned with the carceral state and practices of aesthetic subversion, Smith has furthered the guiding principles innate to her artistic practice, namely to “make work that complicates our understanding of prison and how we name, identify, and locate violence.” As such, the gallery’s walls have been wallpapered with narrow black and white stripes in order to intentionally “frustrat[e] distinctions between sculptural figure[s] and atmospheric background.” 

Hung upon these walls one sees the words, “The uniform around your ankles on fire,” lit up and underscored with a red line. The text comes from Landscape VII (70 ¾” x 226 ¼” x 2 ¼”), a neon installation Smith created in 2023. On the wall opposite hangs all-together-now (2023), a minute and forty-second long video with sound that is looped without pause. 

Installation view of Sable Elyse Smith, 'Fair Grounds,' courtesy of Regen Projects

These two pieces play off of one another both visually and syntactically. The crisp neon text of Landscape VII reflects on the polished black screen of all-together-now, where scenes from Tom and Jerry cartoons (1940-present) are collaged over a clip of a burning building, a sight that “recalls documentation from 2020’s nationwide protests following George Floyd’s murder by police,” the writer Claudia Ross explains in a recent in-depth exhibition review in Frieze Magazine

Before the content of these artworks registers, one is likely to notice their visually elegant presentation, and this “visual seduction,” as Smith recently told Cultured Magazine, is a potently aestheticized form of subversion. “I’m more interested in what happens once the viewer gets there,” beyond the initial threshold of engagement with the work, “which is intense and sometimes uncomfortable,” Smith told Cultured. Once a viewer registers the work’s content as well as its form, Smith suggests, “it’s not about the visual pleasure anymore, it’s up to the audience” to reckon with what’s actually on the screen or the wall, or, for instance, on the floor, where BARRICADE and BARRIER (56” x 56” x 56,” 2023), two sculptural pieces made from powder coated aluminum, are arranged. In these two sculptures, Smith transforms aluminum sourced from tables and seats used in prison visiting rooms into octagonal structures. 

In other works Smith transforms pages from a children’s coloring book found in the visiting rooms of penitentiaries, courtrooms, and social service offices into large-scale screen printed works on paper. In the repurposed pages, which comprise her ongoing Coloring Book series, 

Smith draws on a found text “to visualize the carceral state, scrutinizing how power and inequity solidify and delimit real lives." For example, in Coloring Book 130 (63 ¾”  x 53 ½” x 2 ½,” screen printing ink, oil pastel, and oil stick on paper, 2023), one sees several iterations of the same page: three figures stand in frontal postures, above them reads, “ALL TYPES OF PEOPLE ARE JUDGES,” while below, “THE ONLY IMPORTANT THING IS THAT THEY ARE FAIR AND HONEST.” Such visual interventions allow Smith to “stage a dialogue of site, language, and shape to interrogate how distinctions and definitions of space dangerously weave violence, spectacle, and entertainment together.” The result, quite often, is one of visual appeal and affective discordance.

Sable Elyse Smith is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and educator based in New York. Using video, sculpture, photography, and text, she points to the carceral, the personal, the political, and the quotidian to speak about a violence that is largely unseen, and potentially imperceptible. Her work has been featured at MoMA Ps1, New Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem,  Brooklyn Museum, New York; ICA Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA; and MIT List Visual Arts Centers, Cambridge, MA amongst others. She has received awards from Creative Capital, Fine Arts Work Center, the Queens Museum, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, Rema Hort Mann Foundation, the Franklin Furnace Fund, and Art Matters.