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It's how you play the game

Traditional printmaking techniques show the playful side of conceptual art

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TWO slides stood out during Winnipeg printmaker Suzie Smith's artist talk for To Break & To Build, her solo exhibition at Aceartinc. Tucked among images of her own recent work and the artists who've influenced her, she included examples of a simple pen-and-paper game, the sort of thing kids might be encouraged to play on long car trips to pass the time. The first player dashes off two squiggly lines, and the second has to find some way to work them into a picture -- a bear, a bug, a boat, or anything else. She shared it as a fun aside, but it went a long way towards illustrating her approach to art-making, which is at once methodical in its focus and irrepressibly playful.

"Conceptual" and "process-based" art, both central to Smith's practice, emphasize the idea of the work and how it's made -- the materials an artist uses, what she does with them and for how long -- over the form and appearance of the finished object. While this can yield work that looks clinical (or like nothing at all), Smith chooses to work within the familiar technical and visual framework of fine art and commercial printmaking. The results are accessible and engaging while showing a level of restraint that highlights the inquisitive, exploratory nature of her methods. Smith is playing games, but the rules are always clearly defined.

In Second Hand Records, she begins with album sleeves purchased at junk shops and yard sales, using silkscreen to cleanly black out certain areas, adding simple white figures elsewhere, often no more than a single line. The alterations aren't elaborate, but the transformations they produce are surprising and often funny: a group of Highland dancers become a dangling row of marionettes; a footloose Tom Jones catches his ankle in a rope snare. The exhibition is full of similarly deft, witty gestures that, by forcing us to question what it is we're looking at, ask us to consider broader issues of how the images that surround us are constructed, consumed and understood.

Elsewhere, Smith used software to lay out images that, once printed, can be cut out and folded to produce life-size, three-dimensional, and near-photorealistic papercraft models of bricks and hammers, which she displays in tidy piles. A similar play between "image" and "object," surface, space, and volume, is apparent in other works. Prints show the front and back of crumpled sheets of paper, hands holding magnetic compasses, and Smith herself hiding behind the mostly blank surface of the page, peering out through illusory "eyeholes" in a sort of print-form peekaboo.

Some of the most resolutely process-oriented works are also among the most beautiful. In the series Shapes Shifting, Smith first prints out simple geometric figures -- bold lines, squares, circles, etc. -- tearing, folding, and pressing the pages flat like freeform origami until the squares become circles, circles become squares and intricately pleated lattices, and straight lines give way to scalloped waves. Ever attentive to craft, she scans these ephemeral "sketches," reproducing them as pristine, richly textured black-and-white lithographs.

In tone and technique, the work in To Break & To Build is varied, even scattered, but each new gesture ultimately invites us further into Smith's singularly creative, surprisingly consistent and refreshingly unpretentious sensibility and practice.

If she's playing games, the rules are easy to follow. Why not play along?


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2013 C14

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About Steven Leyden Cochrane

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.


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