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The Naked Pilgrim

ae2LETTING GO: Companions have reached land’s limit in Down the River. Robynn Smith at MichaelAngelo’s
On wood and on paper, the recent works of Robynn Smith at MichaelAngelo Gallery express with eloquence and passion the sturm und drang shared this moment throughout the world. While the earth cracks and waters heave and the oppressed rise up and monsters aim guns at children and freaks clamber over each other for an antidote to radioactive clouds an ocean away, Smith finds eddies in the grain of wood and draws a tree root pushing into the air, stretching out as if to find a clean spot for life.  This body of work is neither sudden nor impulsive, but, just like the inequities and abominations it alludes to, it has been years in development, and getting darker.

On the banks of a river a woman and a dog become indistinguishable from each other, the hunch of a back becomes a fall of dark hair; an arm blends with a sleek paw in a knot of intention, leaning over a tangle of pipes spewing into rippling waters. In the foreground of Down the River, under the water’s surface a bed of shellfish and rocks glimmers. Beyond the figures, four large rusty-looking balls seem suspended among ripples of current. The composition fixes the eyes on the central figures from which every curved line and pipe and ripple emanate.

Painting on a large plywood panel, Smith deploys the naked concentric whorls of the wood to indicate ripples, and, within painted areas, incises the surface of the wood to use its honey-color as highlights and lines, and the very act of cutting to carry powerful psychological intensity.  A screened photograph acts as the first layer of the shadowed underwater life, over-painted and scarred to create ripples and reflections. The dog, the woman, the confluence of industry and nature, the artifacts of some forgotten disaster, the insistence of life under the waters are all themes to which Smith has returned for many years.  The expressionistic brush and breathless gesture of her lines scream purpose from within the layers of obscurity. What is happening here?

The seven works on wood in this exhibition each carry such intensity and utilize similar tools of over-painted photographic images, incised lines, and a sense of the natural world continuing in the dark place that humans have made.  Smith has long been a pilgrim to sites of disasters: battlefields, bunkers, memorials—as if to feel with her own fingers the evidence. Yet in all these works on wood and also the series of fine art prints exhibited here, she finds within nature that which, within all the darkness, prevails.

“Robynn Smith: Works on Wood and Paper” continues at MichaelAngelo Gallery through March 27.  Gallery hours are Saturday and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. or by appointment at 426-5500.


Maureen Davidson writes about the arts as “The Exhibitionist.” This column and her radio spot and blog at KUSP.org/exhibitionist are funded in part by a grant from the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County.

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