Furniture & Femininity { With Courtney Smith }

CourtneySmith1Courtney Smith and I connected over a shared love of Brazil. This Brooklyn-based artist (the third in this week’s series) was born in Paris, France but began her artistic career in earnest in Rio de Janeiro, where she moved after graduating from Yale. Brazil is teeming with abundant varietals of exotic wood, and in Rio, Smith was regularly finding incredible, affordable, early 20th-century furniture made from it ~ baroque, hand-carved interpretations of classical European styles. CourtneySmith2She’d begun her artistic journey as a painter but these fantastic hybridizations quickly shifted her interests. Furniture became a fixation, luring her imagination away from the painted surface to the essence of the surface itself. CourtneySmith3Like Nick van Woert, Smith’s work has always been informed by materials. Especially inspired by the surrealist possibilities of vanities and armoires, she began collecting and dissecting these traditionally feminine furnishings ~ reassembling them with elaborate systems of hinges, transforming them into puzzle-like sets of possibilities. The resulting sculptures are essentially three-dimensional collages, combining deconstruction and reconstruction to inspire a dialogue about our assumptions of masculinity and femininity. CourtneySmith4 CourtneySmith5I knew little about her work before our visit, but these frictions immediately struck me. I could instantly sense the personification of the furnishings, the way they started to feel ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ based on how they’d been reconfigured and composed. Furniture is a symbol for both the body and the home, and can carry nostalgia for a bygone era, speak of class, gender, taste, craftsmanship or mass production. It is understandable that an artist like Smith could find such limitless expressions within the medium. Indeed, she’s made it her life’s work. CourtneySmith6|ABOVE| a more ‘ladylike’ hinged chair sits atop a shelf in Smith’s workroom. Its restructuring has rendered it both more lifelike and lifeless than ever ~ knocked-kneed like a fragile fawn but drooping and useless as a forgotten marionette.

Eventually, Courtney Smith moved to New York from Rio. In the US ~ due to the lower quality of furniture she found accessibly available ~ her work became about digging into the objects rather than adding onto them. She plunged into a new series, carving rococo filigrees into plain wood furniture. At first glance, the work resembled ornamentation; at closer inspection it revealed itself as corrosion. CourtneySmith7Her more recent work has been focused on fabricating (as opposed to deconstructing), building totally new structures that resemble familiar furnishings but have largely been stripped of their function. For the artist, this seems to represent a shifting in interest from the intimacy of hand crafting to the anonymity of mass manufacture. Though every sculpture remains one of a kind, their industrial materials reference serial production. CourtneySmith8A turmoil over manufacturing, materials, mass consumption and dated gender assumptions rages on in every creative subset of our culture. We hear about them in Hollywood and have these conversations constantly in the fashion world, but not often enough that the issues are yet eradicated. We rely on art to help us see what’s already in front of our eyes, and over time (if we’re lucky) we begin to evolve.