Josh Smith at David Zwirner

Josh Smith, Queensboro Bridge, 2023, oil and acrylic on poly cotton, 183 x 213 cm. All images © Josh Smith. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner

In Paris, expressive ambivalence gives way to a lyrical defiguration of sameness, as the self holds on tight through the world’s psychoses.

It’s hard to walk into a Josh Smith exhibition without a certain kind of expectation: something painted again and again. As an artist who, for decades, has literally made a name for himself repeatedly scrawling it foreground and background, his paintings are now preceded by another kind of signature, a deceptively formulaic directness: palm trees, grim reapers, turtles, usually in lurid colors.

This simplicity is perhaps a smokescreen: Smith’s excessive productivity and expeditiously “expressive” style have often created a troubling sense of “something else,” an unnamable ambivalence that uncomfortably brings stoner formalism into contact with a relentless conceptualism. From exhibition to exhibition, responses to his work often hesitate between these two oppositional discourses, critics unsure as to whether they have before them the work of a jazzy genius, an executed “idea,” or a cynical joke. Split between ironic posturing and sincere pleasure (I find the palm trees particularly seductive), his paintings are contradictions in terms that result in a kind of hollow infinity, a banal and boisterous sense of “everything.”

View of “Living with Depression,” David Zwirner, Paris, 2023

View of “Living with Depression,” David Zwirner, Paris, 2023. Photo: Thomas Lannes

Smith’s current show at David Zwirner Paris, “Living with Depression,” materializes a different kind of infinity, a shift in de-figuring sameness. The show is entirely composed of new red paintings, hung in a seemingly pragmatic way: big paintings in the big gallery, smaller paintings in the smaller gallery, with certain motifs (camouflage, the Queensboro bridge, his name) circulating between the two spaces. There is almost a lyricism to his smoky constellation of subjects. The night sky is conjured through two square, beautifully unhinged “starmen” paintings (Long Weekend Starman and Myself, all works 2023), evoked equally by pictures of the moon cycle, a galaxy, and a lightning storm, as well as motifs of emptiness and flight: birds, a letter box, a basket, everything rendered in his recognizably “sloppy” style. References to his previous works also resurface (his name, the decorative borders), while his previous color palette flickers underneath the red, notably in Josh Smith, where a horse’s body is contoured in pastel pink, yellow, and purples from mauve to magenta.

It’s tempting to say that the evanescent poems that Smith has painted mark a radical turning point in his career, indicating a maturity or seriousness that his previous exhibitions so demonstratively refused. By muting certain conceptual gimmicks (seriality, irony, cliché), one could argue that this is Smith’s most “sincere” exhibition to date, a sentiment particularly evident in Living with Depression, where the washed-out orange of the title’s letters blink across the canvas like a dim neon sign. Another, more cynical view would see this exhibition as a more or less calculated mid-career move to place the artist in the same sentence as other modernist masters who, intentionally or not, succeeded in branding a color, such as Albers, Rauschenberg, and Rothko.

View of “Living with Depression,” David Zwirner, Paris, 2023

View of “Living with Depression,” David Zwirner, Paris, 2023. Photo: Thomas Lannes

Yet both approaches – either a disavowal of Smith’s previous work or its motivated re-endorsement – would overlook the subtle shift that has reanimated the fundamental concerns of his practice: identity and its normative force. Here, Smith’s sameness is chromatic, not thematic: “Living with Depression” is not really an exhibition of monochromes; red is simply the means to create an ensemble, the color used like a trick, a filter, or an alibi. Sometimes, one gets the sense that the application of red was almost an afterthought, as previous colors bleed through certain compositions (Red Basket 2); others feel red only by association, dominated as they are by other tones (Cockfight, Red Duck). In those that do seem to be “true” monochromes, such as Pals, where two cartoon clowns peer out from the canvas, trapped in the foreground, red fills the painting like smoke would a room, stifling its subject, the clowns obscured by an abstraction that only hints at their presence. This moment, where the painting flickers between figuration and its opposite, haunts the exhibition, each work finished at the exact moment that its subject appears, stunted and almost scared of the world that it’s been thrown into.

This psychological language is perhaps unwarranted in a review – paintings’ subjects don’t feel anything – but in a show that uses one of the Western world’s most diagnosed “mood disorders” in its title, it’s hard not to read Smith’s red as a kind of supplement that the paintings “need,” an anxious attachment that gives them a sense of “identity” in an otherwise undetermined emptiness. This “self” and its modes of expression, so often present in Smith’s paintings, are no longer aggressively obvious or wearyingly performative. In “Living with Depression,” Smith bears witness to a “self” that tries to camouflage its own survival in a world choked by apocalyptic smoke, a world whose own psychic disorder is as hollow and infinite as the color red itself.

Josh Smith, Pals, 2023

Josh Smith, Pals, 2023, oil and acrylic on poly cotton, 183 x 152.5 cm


Living with Depression
David Zwirner, Paris
2 Sep – 7 Oct 2023