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Review: James M. Smith brings joy of summer camp to SLUMA

Provided by Saint Louis University Museum of Art

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: If you don’t make it to summer camp this year, the next best thing is James M. Smith’s spectacular installation in the first floor gallery at the St. Louis University Museum of Art (SLUMA).

Entering Smith’s Unscripted exhibit feels like walking through an adventurer’s scrapbook. Smith’s playful and ambitious dreamscape exists outside of time. He has created a past future just as the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury described it.

Smith’s large sculptures look like useful objects. They are formed from rope and wood and rough-hewn canvas, tied together with so many knots and stitches. His art has a Boy Scout aesthetic. Canvases along the walls hold building plans drawn and altered in succession, befitting the creation of the wondrous contraptions arranged throughout the gallery. His crisp graphics of negative images appear to be made by a blinding sun searing unfinished, impractical design plans onto color soaked canvases.

The objects throughout the exhibition space represent active lives. His Ovoo is a teepee fort of found objects that looks as if built by busy 12 year olds on a summer day. Arranged as they are, Smith’s intricate sculptural oddities inspire a soundtrack of sea gulls and fog horns, the hum of the gallery’s air conditioning unit attempts to fill the auditory void.

Zeppelins have a bold presence in Smith’s oeuvre as do rockets and scaffolded grain elevators and water towers. Speed Triple Combine offers an archive of aviation motifs including a heavily worn flight suit with a rusted scarf. Much of Smith’s iconography connotes fantastical travel. A motorcycle from yesteryear appears as if an imprint from a dream.

The burnt at the edges red drowned canvas of Red Combine is held to earth only by a long red cord attached to three red blocks. It is a tentative mooring. A sandbag holds down one of the two Streamliner sculptures as if it might rise into the air. Bright blue splotches along the flying machine suggest a recent trip through painted sky.