It’s challenging to be an artist in a tough economy. But sometimes the alternative career paths can be equally as difficult. Richard Butz’s former architecture/interior design practice had slowed down significantly in the past several years since the economic downturn, so the painter decided to turn his personal studio space on the bottom floor of a building on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine into a place where he could exhibit his own art as well as that of other artists. “I didn’t really know how this would work out,” Butz says. “I just wanted a space for my paintings.”
The first exhibition at RBds in March was of the proprietor’s own paintings, but for his first outside-sourced exhibition, Butz invited printmaker Jonpaul Smith — an artist whose work he had seen at various area galleries like Miller Gallery and The Carnegie in Covington — to show. Smith also displays his large, woven paper pieces abroad in institutions like the Kyoto Municipal Museum in Japan or the Penang State Art Gallery in Malaysia.
In what is likely not a coincidence, Smith’s 10 pieces coordinate quite well with Butz’s existing geometric paintings, which are hung on the farthest walls near the rear of the gallery.
Butz, an ornamental plasterer by trade (the interior design part of his labor), paints his large canvases with palette knives in horizontal stripes of interwoven sculptural pale pastels and jewel tones that stand off of the canvas.
Smith, by contrast, employs paper as his primary medium (he graduated from UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning with a MFA in printmaking in 2005), but both Smith and Butz seem to strive to make three-dimensional objects out of their respective two-dimensional mediums.
For Smith, that comes in the form of found materials or his own prints, which he subsequently cuts up and assembles.
Smith’s work operates on various levels. It is at once visually appealing — almost like a “Magic Eye” pattern with the horizontally repeating grid, sometimes giving the illusion of depth of field, depending on the artist’s arrangement.
All besides the two biggest, “Circle” and “Meredith,” which are also the only two not made from found commercial paper, are cased behind glass in floating frame shadowboxes. The aforementioned un-framed pieces employ Smith’s mixed printing techniques, cut and woven together with edges left jagged. These primarily black and white pieces in particular are reminiscent of QR codes with their interlocking square dots.
“Circle” is an 84-inch-diameter disc with a hole in the middle of it like a 12-inch record might have — if it were covered in perfectly interlaced papier-mâché strips. “Meredith,” an eight-foot-long tapestry of muted black, grey, white and rust (hung either horizontally or in this case, vertically), comes alive with macrocosms of what look like arteries or aerial views of cities upon close inspection.
Because he is culling from marketing and commercial media, Smith’s found woven imagery can be a meditation on visual commercial trends. Choices of color, font and iconography (think the Hawaiian Punch guy or even the Coca-Cola trademark) are so ingrained in our visual language that they’re easily recognizable — despite the interwoven nature of their appearance in the artwork.
The artist’s choices of products from Girl Scout Thin Mints to the iconic blue Kraft Macaroni & Cheese box illuminate his understanding of our emotionally charged responses to products. Discovering a box for Bottle Caps Candy or Diet Mountain Dew hidden within a piece, one immediately conjures images of summer bike rides to the corner store for candy as a kid, or ongoing weekly trips to the gas station for more 12-packs.
What’s most thoughtful about Smith’s work might be the subtlest of elements, however. The framing of all but the aforementioned two larger pieces within the exhibition (woven from printed-on paper but not product-based) underlines the fact that Smith is differentiating between the two kinds of pieces he’s created. Found two-dimensional commercial paper becomes an object again, once set behind glass — just as the products themselves might sit in window displays. The hand-printed paper pieces, however, are alive and hung directly on the wall allowing them to be living objects.
RBds Gallery is off to a solid start. JonPaul Smith’s work is both smart and well done — a strong precedent for future exhibitions.
JONPAUL SMITH’s exhibition runs through Aug. 10 at RBds Gallery, 1425 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-378-0618.