Smith hand-cuts long strips from product packages and weaves them together into bold, tapestry-like works. From a distance, one can enjoy the abstract shapes and colors, but can pick out recognizable imagery up close. Tiny elements from popular culture emerge, such as Tony the Tiger, Sponge Bob, Little Debbie, Uncle Ben — the iconic cast of characters that populate our processed-saturated food supply.
Smith, who is 31 and a resident of Madeira, is enamored with product packaging, specifically its patterns.
“The world is filled with patterns, in nature as in consumerism,” he says, as we look at his Carnegie show together. “After collecting packaging for so long, I began to see particular colors commonly used for certain types of products, such as blue for cleaning supplies.”
The fascination for packaging was broadened when he met his wife, who works in the package design field.
“The amount of time spent on one package is amazing — sometimes over one year for just one small change to a design,” he says.
Smith started out as a printmaker in college (he has an MFA from University of Cincinnati’s DAAP), cementing his love of working with paper. His love of commercial products might have been sown in his father’s liquor store chain, in which he worked after he turned 21. An artist residency in Hungary after graduate school led to his use of found paper.
“I didn’t want to pack all of my own materials,” he says, “so I collected them there, all those wonderful European advertising flyers and postcards.
“The first question most people ask me about my work is, ‘How long does it take?’ Honestly, I’m not the type to keep track of that,” Smith says.
He is modest about what appears to be a time-consuming, tedious process.
“I really just sit on the floor and line things up with blue painter’s tape.
I used to make everything the size of my area rug, 6-by-9 feet and hung directly on the wall like a tapestry, but now I make smaller pieces that can be framed.”
He weaves the paper strips together by hand, without using a loom or glue.
“Each piece is largely held together without adhesive, save a couple drops on the edges so they don’t come apart,” he says.
Smith’s interest in weaving started when he was a printmaker.
“I wanted to get away from the tradition of making a ‘perfect’ print, with exact registration,” he says. “I began gridding my prints, which eventually led to the grid-like woven pieces.”
He also loves the accessibility of weaving — it’s art-versus-craft qualities — to which the majority of people can relate.
Smith still seems to grapple with perfection in his current work. In his piece “Consumer Trends,” which at first could be considered a celebration of commercial products, he hid cockroach trap packaging among that of cereal.
“I’m drawn to everyday household objects,” he says. “For instance, a doily is beautiful but is often used to hide something ugly, such as stains from a greasy head on the back of a chair or circles from a drinking glass on a table.”
The ideas behind other works are more whimsical. His “Hotel Stewart” documents the products used by a friend while he stayed at their mutual friend Stewart’s house. The two newest works in the Carnegie show, “Pirate Party” and “Wild West,” show an attempt to preserve more of each package’s imagery and is more deliberately composed. The result is reminiscent of those slide puzzles you may remember from childhood, in which a picture slowly materialized within a grid.
Viewers can experience Smith’s work on multiple levels, ranging from food nostalgia to a visceral response to color to a consideration of our food sources. And the artist would be thrilled by that. “I try to keep an open narrative in my work rather than to make a definitive statement,” Smith says.
Elsewhere in the show, Sandra Gross and Leah Busch’s installation of cast-glass toast and stainless steel toasters, which shares a gallery with Smith’s work, provides a colorful, comfort-food counterpoint to Smith’s more conceptual, abstract woven pieces. Other standouts in The Art of Food include Eric Brass’ large-scale copies of famous works of art made out of food, especially those that incorporate clever puns like his rendition of Salvador Dali’s “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans” made out of (what else?) beans, or his version of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” constructed with (of course) potato chips.
Birgit Ehmer’s sculptures made from pasta, legumes and grains completely transform her edible media into natural-looking forms that resemble smoothly polished stones or shaggy sea creatures. And, MB Cluxton’s Dada-esque photomontages recall the bizarre fruit-and-vegetable portraits by Italian Renaissance artist Giuseppe Archimboldo.
THE ART OF FOOD is on view through April 15 at the Carnegie Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Covington, www.thecarnegie.com. You can learn more about Jonpaul Smith at his website, jonpaulcsmith.com. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.