Shinique Smith is surveying her first solo museum show and, of course, sweating the details. Born in Baltimore in 1971, she began her career as a stylist/wardrobe assistant for films and opera — her mother was a designer and an editor for Baltimore Style magazine — then switched tracks to that whole Brooklyn artist/hipster number. The catalog for Shinique Smith: Menagerie at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami contains an essay by the forever groovy DJ Spooky, aka Paul D. Miller, who writes about Smith’s knack for synthesizing mediums, her stature in the post-Facebook/YouTube generation and the “libidinal economy” of “scripting” autobiographical statements into her work. Miller’s a darn good DJ, too.
An old wardrobe and pop-culture hand — able to negotiate opera divas, Ugly Betty and the stylistic choices of Sex and the City — Smith expertly plucks at the bustle formed in Passerine, 2008, a white wedding gown draped over a rattan stand, while taking in the 2008 piece and, she has a bowl of lilacs in her room. The installation consists of clothes, dolls and knickknacks stacked atop such groaning-with-romance books as Pride and Prejudice and Endless Love.
“I loved the movie Endless Love, but I never actually read the book. It’s good, really?”
Menagerie was organized by MOCA and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison, Wis., where it opens in January. One corner contains Twilight’s Compendium, a reference to old-school body painting, Yves Klein and assorted other constructs, with Smith using her nude body to create swirls of blue paint on the gallery walls (“So many artists are using assistants now, but I like to use my own body in my work”). Another installation, No dust, no stain, first done in 2006 in New York, entails stylized calligraphy — Smith studied Japanese calligraphy in college — scraps of widely varied mats and rugs (echoing the decorative scheme of her grandmother’s house) on the floor, graffiti, milk crates spray-painted gold, bowls of water and the musings of strangers scrawled on brochures and left on subway trains, found poetry that has a quiet beauty: “I am a story on the platform.”
The best piece in the show, another example of art emerging in all corners of the universe, is Smith’s 1989 video, Letter to Johnny, a homage, love letter and confession to Johnny Depp, then in his 21 Jump Street teen-idol period. Smith made the almost nine-minute video as a high-school student and in 2005 discovered it in a box of childhood junk: being an artist means that every aspect of your life is, handily enough, art.
Smith insists that she had no real ambition to be an artist in high school, but there’s a faint self-consciousness within the video, as if she sensed it might become a kind of blueprint to her destiny. In the piece, she’s wearing a baggy sweater and giving Depp a tour of her room, framed by a 21 Jump Street poster that she’d had signed at a promotional appearance he had made at a Baltimore auto show. Like any hopeful lover, she’s asking not to be judged by the ordinary circumstances of her life: “I’m not what you see here. . . . I am, but there is so much more to me that I think you should know.”
At one point, she looks critically at herself in the mirror and observes, with the simultaneous self-loathing and egocentric fervor of adolescence, “God, I look like such a nerd in these glasses. . . . Just so you don’t think I’m a total pseudo-intellectual, I do like to party. . . . I drink and smoke, but I don’t do drugs. I do like to dance though.”
With that, Smith peels off her sweater, puts on one of her favorite club hits from the era, Renegade Soundwave’s 1988 Cocaine Sex, and starts dancing around in an energetic way. The fact that the video was made in the pre-Facebook era gives it a power that it would lack now. Too many self-eviscerating yet self-aggrandizing videos and photos have been posted online since 1989, the Internet becoming a ceaseless tar pit of toxic narcissism that renders even the singular meaningless.
At the video’s end, Smith looks at the camera and says, “I hope I didn’t make a fool of myself, opening myself up to you like this.” Standing there in the MOCA galleries, she is a bit embarrassed by this young stranger, though she’s still happy to hear just about anything related to Depp. One 2 a.m. in Los Angeles, when he owned the Viper Room — where River Phoenix eventually crossed the fun line and overdosed — I talked to Depp about Miami and how he’d come a long way from growing up in a Miramar bungalow. He was wistful for a moment, honest about his good fortune and the essence of grace under stardom. It was one of those rare celebrity encounters, a moment that doesn’t make you feel like pulling the skin off your face.
Smith topped that Viper Room anecdote with her story about Depp. Shortly after making her teenage video ode, she wound up working as an incipient wardrobe tech on Cry Baby, starring Depp and featuring Miami boy Iggy Pop, whose house is just a few miles from MOCA.
“We all actually hung out together one Sunday. We had Japanese food for lunch, then went to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It was the strangest — and the coolest — day of my life.”
Real life, on occasion, beats art hands down.