Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Columbidae: Barbara T Smith, The Poetry Sets

My digging into less traditional media has begun. At the end of a day of mainly computer driven art on Sunday I found myself in the humble company of Barbara Smith. Working in the 60s and in response to the lack of access to traditional printing facilities, she began experimenting with an early Xerox photocopier. She started out repeatedly copying the things in her home and re-photocopying the photocopies after they had been manipulated in an open-ended exploration of possibilities before going on to combine the process with poetry.

It is hard to describe the pieces on display at the Cell Project Space in East London. They take their form from the photocopier and are all on lightweight copy paper. The poems are typed and it is impossible to tell whether the images or the words came first, both because they fit together with such completeness and because Smith makes clever use of the degradation that is inevitably produced by photocopying a photocopy. The light paper, absence of marks and the combination of words with fragmented and delicate images give the pieces a real weightlessness and make them among the least physical things I have ever seen.

The content of the work is even harder to verbalise. Smith repeatedly returns to motifs like horses, new born babies and young ferns and it is hard to tell whether this is where her poetry naturally dwells or if this simply reflects the things of photocopiable size she had to hand. Her preferred themes are uplifting and joyous; she frequently returns to motherhood, growth and the simple joy of being. To break down the work though would be to miss the point - it would be like like dissecting a brain to try to understand thought. Suffice to say that both in each individual piece of paper and each set of pieces, Smith manages to make something self-contained, whole and satisfying and that overall the work is so delicate and so intimate that it makes me feel very, very clumsy.


As a postscript, I'd like to mention the venue, the Cell Project Space. The Cell is a self-funding organisation providing studios in East London and the Project Space is their gallery. Located in Bethnal Green, it is tiny (I've seen bigger bedrooms) but in a good way. It is beautifully lit by huge skylights and is set so far back from the road and railway that it is surprisingly silent. This quietness suited Smith's work to a tee and is one of the reasons it was so immersive. The best thing of all about the space though is the entrance. Walk along Cambridge Heath Road until you find a hoarding with a door in it. Behind the hoarding there is an alley which has been transformed into a jungle. As you enter, there are glimpses of studios through windows. At the end of the alley, climb the stairs to the entrance and you find yourself on a little patio with views across the rooftops and then - into the gallery with its softly textured whiteness and immersive silence. It's a lovely piece of theatre and absolutely perfect for creating a state of mind ready to accept works of art which create a little world of their own.

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