Contributed by Sharon Butler / “Reaching for Something High,”Leslie Smith III’s first NYC solo show, on view at Chart, is a virtuosic blending of influences and themes, reflected in the delicate complexity of eight shaped paintings on thick stretchers floating with trenchant awkwardness on the wall. Each painting comprises many smaller, oddly shaped canvases, each of them individually constructed and stretched and, for the most part, lightly painted. Often the surfaces of individual pieces have been sewn together from smaller painted scraps. In the title painting, Reaching for Something High, the shapes nestle together, like a jigsaw puzzle. In other pieces, like Cosmic Feud, they seem related by color but only tenuously cohere by geometry, arraying in a cave-like sprawl around a vacant center.
Although labor-intensive in the making, Smith’s paintings are playful in the viewing. They unfold like a game. Figuring out how the pieces fit together – or don’t – is the viewer’s opening move. Beyond marveling at Smith’s craftsmanship and his deft aesthetic touch, the goal is to find deeper significance in his idiosyncratic process for bringing ungainly shapes together. The best abstract painting is born of fresh ideas and probing questions, and Smith’s work is buzzing with them. Like, say, Richard Tuttle, he appears intent on foiling the art-historical presumption that an artist should adhere to a prevailing narrative. He is happy enough for his work to intersect with consensus if that is where his mind takes him, but he is loath to follow to any externally prescribed roadmap.
Smith, who is African American, chafes against identity politics writ large and embraces a less stentorian, more personal approach to society and politics. He focuses on putting individuality in context — the way in which each of us engages with others in shared spaces. Thus, he sidesteps the more confrontational lines of argument that have arisen in various communities – Black, brown, LGBTQ – in response to America’s burgeoning political polarization, and more particularly to the re-emergence of white nativist narratives and related racist or otherwise exclusionary tropes.
In Smith’s work, he has the quiet courage to put ideas about proximity and unity above political discord, but he’s not looking to invalidate more assertive grievance. It hovers in the sense of jeopardy of Night Swim; Don’t Let Go, the implicit muscularity of the black shape in Where Do We Go From Here?, and the hardnosed irony of Onward and Upward and Between Nowhere and Goodbye. Instead, he is looking to expand and deepen the rhetorical repertoire with calm, frank observation, suggesting (through metaphor) some of the paths that have enabled coexistence. Black Horseman features small, pointed black shapes filling the holes, like water between big, sinewy pink pieces that tangentially touch, depicting with brilliant subtlety Smith’s experience of moving through an expanse of white. The poignantly off-balance Travel Companion operates in the same way.
Compassion is a recurring theme in Smith’s paintings as he contemplates new ways to look at his experience in a pluralistic society. As he says in his artist’s statement, he wants to offer an alternative worldview of inclusion and historical acceptance. Through art, Smith suggests that while the relationships among separate entities are challenging, even destabilizing, they are more interesting and hopeful than the entities standing alone. The point is tightly captured in the series of six small, interrelated drawings in the lower level of the gallery. For an artist of color to take such a stance at a singularly fraught political moment seems noble as well as novel, harder and not easier. At bottom, Smith is a unifier. I can see him alone in his Wisconsin studio, listening to old jazz records, bringing his canvases together and observing how they interact as he explores the less-traveled path through discordance and cordiality to authentic harmony.
“Leslie Smith III: Reaching for Something High,” Chart, 74 Franklin Street, New York, NY. Through October 28, 2023.
About the author: Sharon Butler is a painter and the publisher of Two Coats of Paint.