by Matt Price
In the West Midlands, England, there is a small city by the name of Walsall. Here, located in a former Texaco Garage, is a shop called Thomas Orton & Son Ltd. On the forecourt are piles of used uPVC windows and doors, while round the back is an old Ford Escort van that appears to have had acid thrown at it. Entering through the doors of the shop the visitor is confronted by an array of items that might have been found on the shelves of 1970s chemists. And if you make it past the racing pigeons and up the staircase, an Aladdin’s cave of bric-a-brac awaits. It was here that Lichfield-based artist Kirsty E Smith found a small, light blue ceramic soap dish from the 1950s that became the starting point for Chubby Blue, one of her most accomplished works to date.
The colour and curves of the soap dish sparked a chain of associations with modernist design, especially with the interiors of 1950s cars such as Cadillacs and Chevrolets. As a child, Smith recalls sitting in a Jaguar belonging to some spinster friends of her grandparents in Glasgow, running her fingers through the grooves in the upholstery. It was with this in mind that when creating her sculpture, she painstakingly (and painfully) hand-stitched the light blue vinyl rather than stapling it so that the owner can, should they share this particular fetish, run their fingers through the grooves in the work. Chubby Blue has obvious formal connections to the Bibendum Chair by the, until recently, largely overlooked 20th Century British designer and architect Eileen Gray. Given the connections between Smith’s sculpture and car design history, it is interesting that Gray’s Bibendum Chair took its name from the famous Michelin Man character designed by O’Galop at the request of the Michelin Brothers in 1898, based on a pile of tyres. Smith’s finished piece exudes a luscious, sensuous tactile pleasure – soft, chunky rings of vinyl layered on top of each other creating an 83 cm-high form. It is a stylish and seductive piece of contemporary sculpture that sits unselfconsciously between craft, non-functional furniture and modernist design.
People find their way to art for many reasons and by many paths. Kirsty E Smith’s career as an artist began when she was nearly killed by an Esso Tanker. As with virtually everything about Smith and her work, there is a story to tell, and the automotive industry is just one of many recurring elements lying beneath the surface of her work (and sometimes literally on the surface of her work, such as the BMW car seating fabric that features in the work Bristle). Having once worked for Lucas Electrical on alternators for tanks (albeit as an accountant), today her art practice regularly takes her to tradespeople such as welders in Stoke on Trent who make galvanised trailers for cars and vans or to John Keatley (Metals) Ltd in Birmingham’s Gun Quarter – a business specialising in non-ferrous metals, including disks for racing car brakes. It is exciting to discover an artist utilising the skills and resources of metalworking companies in a region with such a rich industrial and automotive heritage as the West Midlands. A well-thumbed copy of Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men sits on a shelf in Smith’s house, suggesting she is well aware of the region’s long-standing contribution to industry.
Smith studied metalwork at Manchester Metropolitan University as part of a degree in contemporary craft, from which she graduated in 2006. These skills are put to good use in many of her sculptures, allied with a passion for knitting and needlework that she has had since early childhood. As a child, Smith spent a lot of time with her grandmother, who used to give her fabric samples such as cashmere swatches she was sent by clothes companies – gifts that thrilled the young Kirsty Smith. Some of the fabrics she uses come from her late Auntie Betty’s house in Fife – a flower arranger and senior judge of flower arranging competitions who used textiles and upholstery fabrics as backdrops for her flower arrangements. Smith used some of Auntie Betty’s vintage fabric for Cyril – a striking sculpture that looks like an instrument for some strange futuristic religious ceremony or ancient civilisation ritual, incorporating a 1970s lampshade as if a retro plastic talisman. Along with the inherited velvet, she used beige wool bouclé fabric and synthetic silver fabric over the steel and foam frame, shifting the semiotic register of the form from patriarchal mace to baby’s toy.
Another piece with an element of retro futurism is Lydia, a pyramidal obelisk that looks as though it might once have served on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. Covered in shiny pea-green and turquoise fabric, a combination of knitted fabric, silk and synthetic felt, the piece is electrified by bright red braid that runs in a groove up the back of the sculpture, over the top and partway down the front, ending up running around the edge of a rusty old fireplace vent. The vent looks both at home and out of place – one might be forgiven for expecting some polished metal or smooth plastic on such a futuristic piece of apparatus. This mysterious device seems somewhere between homemade and industrially produced, as if made by a maverick scientist working towards the space race from their garden shed in the 1960s. Two small car indicator lenses are placed discreetly on one side of the object, suggesting that it might have some electrical circuitry and literal function, though it shows no signs of ever needing to spring into action. The fabric that covers it takes the edge off the rigid, modernist lines of the form, and implies that it might be serving as insulation on some kind of stylish heating device from yesterday’s future.
In addition to Smith’s usage of metalwork and textiles, she is becoming equally adept with wood, having been studying cabinet making in order to develop the techniques she learnt at university. One of her first pieces with wood was Tall Legs, an elegant sculpture (inspired by a plaster wall vent) that looks like a very high stool with a luxurious sewing box for a seat. The French-polished mahogany legs are sleek and slender, their plainness and simplicity counterpoised by the chichi box that they support – a white, satin-lined cube with cream fluff trim and lace-embossed vinyl fabric that might have been quite at home in the boudoir of Marie Antoinette. Made with the zeal of a dressmaker, the combination of fur, satin, lace and vinyl, replete with cream buttons puckered over soft upholstery padding, conspire to create an alluring piece of Rococo fetishism.
Another work that employs wood to good effect is Reg, a small, table-like sculpture on which one might imagine placing drinks – apart from the fact that a series of place mats have been configured and bolted together on the top, as if a house of cards, frustrating any aspirations this sculpture might have had to ever functioning as a table. The four oak legs, which have been hand carved rather than steam bent, bow outwards as if they had once been straight and had to support too much weight. The table mats, configured in such a way that their green baize bases are facing upwards, are 1950s Win-el-Ware sourced from the Rag Market in Birmingham city centre. If the viewer crouches, they can peek inside the configuration and get a glimpse of sunny alpine landscapes in glorious technicolour on the insides of the mats. A mirror inside reflects these scenes, depending on the angle from which they are viewed.
The inspiration for this idiosyncratic presentation of the place mats was the viewfinder familiar to the childhoods of many of us. Smith remembers the eclectic assortment of viewfinder image reels her mother brought back from a spell in the United States, such as flowers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and several featuring views of the Rocky Mountains. As with the viewfinder, the sculpture’s exterior gives a very different impression to the imagery found inside, offering an optical portal into a distant world. It equally captures the excitement and curiosity of children when experiencing and interacting with furniture and objects – the unusual angles at which they look at chairs, tables and cupboards, such as from beneath, inside or whilst on all fours, turning things upside down or on their sides to see how they fit together, how the top might be polished but the underside rough, how the doors open or drawers slide and so on. Smith retains her childhood curiosity, now developed into an obsessive passion for design history.
Indeed, Smith has scrapbooks full of newspaper and magazine cuttings about artists, designers, furniture makers and craftspeople, accompanied by scribbled notes, book ISBNs, web addresses, photographs and sketches. The connections come quick and fast – Smith’s use of furry fabrics echoing Jean Royere’s sofas and chairs, the sculptural installations of Annette Messager or Claes Oldenburg; her subversion of furniture finding parallels in the work of Jurgen Bey, Nina Saunders, Carl Clerkin, Gitta Gschwendtner and Doris Salcedo; her fascination with found objects sharing elements with figures as diverse as Cornelia Parker, Richard Wentworth, Marcel Duchamp and Bruno Munari. Smith’s use of recycled and cheap materials makes connections to the work of the Campana Brothers, Ryan Frank and Retrouvius, while references in her pieces to corporeality spark connections to Anish Kapoor, Satyendra Pakhalé and Carlo Mollino. The list is both long and eclectic, and seems to grow on almost a daily basis as the artist discovers new things in the course of her research and work.
What’s particularly interesting is that Smith’s references and ideas bank seem completely democratic – alongside major figures from design and art history, she takes equal inspiration from unbranded products from any era and aesthetics in their broadest sense – it could be the work of a little known architect, a young textile designer whose website she stumbled across, an ornament salvaged from a charity shop or the 1960s kitchen wallpaper in a friend’s house. Her degree dissertation included case studies of the Sir John Soane Museum, the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport, the Bakelite Museum, the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, and Les Oakes’ personal collection of unusual collectibles (including gnomes, urinals, one-armed bandits, Art Deco bathroom fittings, galvanized buckets and tractor seats). Smith is herself a compulsive bargain hunter and would undoubtedly be a hoarder if she had sufficient space in her family house.
While Smith is clearly passionate about furniture, craft, art, design and manufacture in terms of aesthetics, materials, formal qualities, techniques and processes, there is very much a sense that they would mean little to her divorced from their social histories – the people who made them, the people who use them, the contexts, eras and cultures in which they exist and the narratives that objects yield about people’s lives. It is very much a question of what the environments we create around us and the things we fill them with tell her about us, about individual personalities and the wider culture that people collectively create.
This relationship between individual personalities and tastes and the aesthetics that define particular periods in time is evident in Smith’s practice through the personification of her sculptures – she often gives the works human names, such as Hyacinth, Penny and Cyril. Indeed, she regularly refers to the sculptures as ‘beings’ suggesting anthropomorphic interpretations of the work are significant. It is through the idea of inanimate objects being alive that Smith’s work most clearly manifests a sense of the uncanny. Similarly, these objects are uncanny in the sense that they are at once familiar and yet strange, with elements from shared history brought together in unusual ways and unexpected forms. The combination of personal memories and communal memory wrapped up in Smith’s works by way of objects and materials known to us all but with histories specific to individuals engenders both familiarity and estrangement. These sculptures are both endearing and disconcerting, like talking with old friends and yet at the same time being privy to intimate details of the lives of strangers.
When talking about her beings it is always within the context of Frillip Moolog. But is this name an alter ego, a brand or some other kind of concept? When probed about what Frillip Moolog is, Smith describes it as "a place", albeit one that is in our minds or memories- a psychological place rather than a physical one. It is perhaps this idea of Frillip Moolog being a mental space that explains Smith's impulse, when creating her beings, to draw on both her own and other people's sensibilities, neuroses, desires, memories and experiences. The sculptures involve a dialogue between individual identities as expressed through personal, aesthetic taste and the social, economic and cultural conditioning, ideas, technology, fashions and fads of societies at given points in time, and more importantly, how these relationships change over time. As fashions change, the interior décor changes, people move house, they buy new things, building styles change, new materials are used, new furniture styles appear, new trends in clothes and hair styles emerge, car technology and design evolves. But while we often keep up with change, particular things from different times stay with us – ornaments, chairs, light fittings, books, records. We inherit things, we recycle and appropriate second hand goods, we go back to styles of the past, we mix and match the objects and environments around us just as we reinvent ourselves, mature, regress, change, adapt, learn, forget. Our relationships with objects change over time, as do objects’ relationships with their environments. Just as the material world changes, as our lives progress, we and those around us change – people are born, partners and friends come and go, families grow and shrink, people grow old and die. We meet up with old friends, think of those no longer with us and spend time with new people. We live in a constant dialogue between memory and our experiences of the present, and the physical context around us reflects this unavoidable conversation.
Smith’s engaging sculptures are stories of people and objects as they live out their lives – secret, personal lives with which we often have something in common and yet which are tantalisingly ‘other’.
In 2013 Price set up Anomie Publishing, a publishing house that works in partnership with public and private arts organisations to produce and distribute high-quality small and medium print run titles internationally.
As well as his publishing and editorial work, Price has curated or co-curated around twenty exhibitions and curated projects, including: ‘Sound in Z’ with Jeremy Deller for the Palais de Tokyo, Paris; ‘Works on Paper’ for Adrian Ghenie at Plan B, Berlin; ‘The Witching Hour’ with Matthew Collings for Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery; ‘Under the Radar’ for Serban Savu at Pitzhanger Manor, London, and ‘Some Domestic Incidents’, the exhibition of British painting for the Prague Biennale 5.
He has written over one hundred published essays, articles, reviews and interviews in books and catalogues and for magazines such as A-n, Art Monthly, ArtReview, Frieze, Flash Art and Modern Painters.