‘Needle Work’: Allison Smith’s transformative ability
“Needle Work” (2009) by Allison Smith, located in the College of Art Gallery at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (which housed “Metabolic City” this past fall), began as a series of photographs of cloth gas masks from the early 20th century. As her interest in the masks expanded, Smith began to create and modify them herself, to the point that they were no longer functional, let alone recognizable, as masks.
The masks themselves are located in the center of the room, held within glass cases, while the photographs of people wearing them hang on the walls of the exhibit. Highlights include a tall wizard’s hat—no longer even remotely resembling a mask—replete with a moon and stars, a mask that gives the wearer the appearance of Sandman/Wesley Dodds (a character from the Golden Age of DC Comics in the early 1940s), and an especially memorable Ku Klux Klan hat. Numerous other masks are on display, mostly more reminiscent of their original form and purpose than those listed above.
Located in a corner of the room, a poster spinner also holds numerous small pictures of masks. These are even more diverse and experimental than those that the artist created, with a picture of underwear on someone’s head, one of something that looks vaguely like a bra. and one of Michael Jackson’s visage covered by a black handkerchief.
Also part of the exhibit are three large silk parachutes with inkjet prints of the assorted masks on them. Hung at varying heights throughout the room, the parachutes reinforce the military undertone that exists throughout the exhibit. Furthermore, they serve to tie the exhibit together as a whole. They combine the military and non-military masks, and fill the vast tracts of open space that would otherwise exist in the sparsely decorated room.
Centering on the Klan imagery and on the photograph of a man imitating a famous Guantanamo Bay photograph—he wears an orange beanie and holds his hands over his head—the exhibit dabbles in politics and is undercut by militaristic themes. Smith does not make her opinions explicitly known, however, choosing merely to display a variety of well-known and recognizable symbols. The result is that the viewer interprets Smith’s intentions on his or her own, thus becoming, as the cultural theorist Stuart Hall claims, part of the process themselves.
The title of Smith’s exhibit gives further insight into its message. By naming it “Needle Work,” rather than “Gas Masks,” or even “Masks,” the artist informs us that rather than focusing on the mask aspect of the exhibit, it is the creation, form and interpretation that are the important aspects of the exhibition. This further drives home her transmutation of the militaristic masks into often-benign images.
Smith’s “Needle Work” and Sharon Lockhart’s “Lunch Break”—which was reviewed in last week’s issue—work in different ways, but manage to get some of the same points across. They both have subtle, or not so subtle, political connotations, and both attempt to play or influence the viewer emotionally in a specific fashion. At this point, however, they diverge. “Lunch Break” attempts to create empathy for the subjects of Lockhart’s photographs, while Smith’s “Needle Work” plays into our personal psyche, drawing reactions out of us with controversial or unnerving images.
This is the second of two articles examining the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. The first article covered Sharon Lockhart’s “Lunch Break.”