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Graffiti In The Round: Malcolm M. Smith's Evolution In Clay

Inner City Inspiration: An Artist's Evolution in Clay, an exhibition currently on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, showcases the work of Malcolm Mobutu Smith, Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Indiana University.

In an academic setting, the visual arts can seem to exist within mutually exclusive spheres - painting students wrapped up in their own medium, sculptors with theirs. Smith's position within the academy notwithstanding, the ceramics professor readily traverses the borders between dimensions and media, from graffiti to ceramic vessels to rapid prototyping through three-dimensional printing.


Art In The Classroom, Art In The Street

The foundations of Smith's artistic life are simultaneously academic and vernacular. Both of Smith's parents had art degrees, and becoming an artist seemed almost a foregone conclusion in the family. But a seriously extra-curricular activity jump-started Smith's art-making.

"Our high school art teacher showed us the then very new documentary Style Wars," Smith recalls. The 1983 PBS production profiled the young graffiti artists who tagged New York subway trains. "These guys risk life, limb, and incarceration, just for the moment of watching the train come down the line, so they can see their work roll by them. That hit me like a thunderbolt."

From the remove of his classroom in the tiny Philadelphia suburb where Smith lived with his father, the thrill was admittedly vicarious. So when he went to spend the summer at his mother's home in the far grittier milieu of Flint, Michigan, Smith hit the streets with his spray can.

Off The Wall, Into Deep Space

Ultimately, graffiti turned out to be a gateway medium for Smith. "There was always something physical or suggestive about the shallow space of graffiti art that I wanted to try to get into," he explains. "Clay allowed you to manifest physically everything you were doing in the sketchbook anyway; but you could then make it real. You could touch it."

The clay vessels and sculpture on view in Inner City Inspiration manifest Smith's lifelong fascination with the interplay between shallow and deep space. These are ceramic funhouses, where letter forms derived from graffiti conventions explode into volume, and seemingly volumetric elements collapse into flat design, like cubist collages in the round.

Smith's deconstructed vessels disorient the viewer further by bringing disparate ceramic traditions together within a single piece: for example, raw, unglazed terracotta straddles graphically painted porcelain. "I do a mash-up," Smith suggests. "It's sort of like a visual sampling board, or a mixing board that a DJ might use."

Smith's Cloud Cups, a vessel form he's developed over the last decade, extend the conversation between dimensions into the space of the room where they're exhibited. The cups are mounted on a horizontal plinth that extends out from the wall. A 'backsplash,' or flat cut-out, is affixed to the wall behind the cup, creating more inter-dimensional visual relationships.

Outside In/Inside Out

In the show at IMoCA, the dialogue between object and wall continues. Smith collaborated with artist Mike Burchfield, Indianapolis graffiti writers FAB Crew, and the young members of the Indianapolis Public School 2 art club, to create a full-scale graffiti mural in the gallery space. Beyond serving as a backdrop for the artist's ceramic objects, and a thematic background for the work, the mural quite literally connects the downtown streetfront gallery to the source of Smith's original artistic impulse.

"That was the seed of the whole show," Smith says. "To reify that neighborhood in the context of making artwork that's influenced directly by the essence of the outside, the locale of an urban situation."

The Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art is located at 1043 Virginia Avenue, Suite 5, in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis.

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