“I make work that complicates our understanding of prison and how we name, identify, and locate violence,” wrote Smith, on the occasion of the Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet As It’s Kept. “At times I use the word Prison and mean the brick-and-mortar prison, yet that’s not the only prison,” Smith elaborated. “That’s not even the beginning of prison, or the end. Sometimes I talk about an actual prison and show an image, and people get fixated on that. But I’m saying ‘prison’ and meaning ‘the world.’ Meaning The Weather. And the weather is the machines in which we live, in which we loop…”
Smith regularly works across a variety of media and formats in pursuit of a comprehensive conceptual project. By invoking “The Weather,” Smith references the writings of scholar Christina Sharpe, who—in her 2016 book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being—writes, “It is not the specifics of any one event or set of events that are endlessly repeatable and repeated, but the totality of the environments in which we struggle; the machines in which we live; what I am calling the weather.”
For both Sharpe and Smith, “the weather” exemplifies the omnipresent persistence of regimes of control and oppression, well beyond supposed boundaries constructed by language or history. Tracing the atmosphere at hand, Smith’s Coloring Book paintings continue a series the artist has developed over the course of several years, featuring pages from an activity book designed to teach children about the judicial process. Enlarged to monumental scale, bright color and expressive marks jar with the tenor and formal qualities of the found image. In her photographic works, Smith revises the genre of family portraiture. Photographs produced in prison visiting rooms—with features of loved ones obscured or displaced to protect their privacy—appear against expansive fields of black suede. The labor of incarcerated people creates both the photographs and the backdrops, often of tropical locales, which distinctly contrast with the inscrutable flatness of the suede surface. Meanwhile, Landscape VII posits an illuminated text as both heir and short circuit to historic American landscape paintings. Echoing the violence that was perhaps always looming in minimalist sculpture of the 1960s, the two steel sculptures combine and give new meaning to stools designed specifically for use in prisons. Striped walls in the same black-and-cream palette used for these forms frame the space, frustrating distinctions between sculptural figure and atmospheric background. Each work materializes a kind of visual word play, conjuring double (if not even more polyvalent) meanings throughout.