Cauleen! How I love you so.
At the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, the quilted Mylar flag, Cauleen Smith’s “Emerge and See” (2019) flies high above a layered soundscape of brass, piano, and bird songs that fills the gallery. The entrance glows orange, blue, green, burgundy, and magenta as the hot summer sun pours through translucent gel filters overlaid on the museum’s glass doors. As the title suggests, “Leonids Over, Still, and Then” (2021) conjures the colorful November Leonid meteor shower that streaks across the night sky. Smith creates an analogous event and guides the heavens to the museum’s doorstep, transporting us to a place of cosmic order.
The exhibition’s title, “We Already Have What We Need,” is apt and emphasizes the expansive sense of world-building in Smith’s practice. But what kind of world has Smith built?
The idea of utopia now percolates around Smith’s work. But rather than offer a fantasy, the artist points to the resources already available to us to live a more socially equitable and just life in the here and now.
Of these building blocks to affect change, Smith’s “BLK FMNNST Loaner Library 1989-2019” (2019-) hands us a recommended reading list in 15 gouache drawings of book covers. Drafted with the intimacy of slow and focused attention, the drawings read like love letters dedicated to the authors and invitations to the interested person for reflection and introspection. Smith treats the knowledge and wisdom preserved in each text with reverence, reproducing the familiar signs of wear of revisited books in the bumped and bent corners, cover creases, and the occasional bookmark.
With a guide book for hiking trails in Los Angeles (where the artist lives and works), reference manuals on cinematography and tips for the indoor gardener, Smith’s “BLK FMNNST Loaner Library” brings together voices across generations and literary genres that have had a lasting impact in her life. Along with Leonard Koren’s discussion of Wabi-Sabi, the Japanese-based philosophy on the beauty of imperfection, Smith includes Jaime Jiménez and Georges Perec on the wonder of commonplace items and spaces. Tanzanian activist Julius K. Nyerere’s “UJAMAA: Essays on Socialism” (1968), professor Christina Sharpe’s “In the Wake” (2016), and professor Saidiya Hartman’s “Lose Your Mother” (2006) are among the literary works of legendary Black musicians, poets, and novelists Charles Mingus, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dionne Brand, and Camara Laye in conversations around African diaspora, forced migration, and alienation
“BLK FMNNST Loaner Library” stands on the shoulders of giants, bringing attention to those who’ve come before us and the tools they have laid at our feet to successfully resist and disassemble systems of oppression and violence in our time. Picking up the exhibition’s titular refrain, “We Already Have What We Need,” the drawings commemorate the cumulative achievements of men and women of color to build a life around mutual aid, cultural education, and spiritual growth.
On the other side of the gallery, a wonderland of five hanging screens is anchored by plaid plastic travel bags. Each screen hosts two unique images. At the bottom are slide projections of celestial and galactic phenomena from our solar system. On top, vibrant landscapes surround West African Baule, Dogon, and Ère Ìbejì figures interacting with a diverse cast that features a welcoming Maneki-Neko, model racing boat, and a rubber crow mask.
The source of these tableaux involves live-video feed of objects Smith has staged in front of flat-screen monitors that play one of five short films. Scenes of sea life, sunsets, forests, cities, and fields of flowers form the backdrop of an array of items including potted plants, books, and stones. Outside the frame, more objects escape the camera’s monocular perspective — plaster bases prop up the African sculptures, a feather on one table, braided hair on another, a Polaroid camera and radio, tuning fork, Kintsugi porcelain cups and saucers, and a plastic water bottle.
Smith’s installation invites us into the inventive space between the process of filmmaking and its poetics. While the floor-to-ceiling projections read as interstellar landscapes awash in colorful light, the nearby table-top dioramas ground these larger-than-life figures within the gallery. And what appear as abstract fragments in silhouette, out of focus, or close up on screen reveal themselves clearly in the table-top dioramas. In this volley between shifts in scale and perspective between the photographed and the photographic, Smith’s power to act as the architect of her reality becomes clear.
Smith’s background in filmmaking comes across in her staging, particularly through fanning colored light across the show’s entrance and creating mythic multi-channel projections from miniature models. Emblazoned with Smith’s embroidered velvet and satin processional banners, the exhibition powerfully highlights her visionary practice. The mechanics of world-building are an important element of her work as they reveal that understanding how a system works means knowing how a new thing can be built.
“Cauleen Smith: We Already Have What We Need” continues through Oct. 3 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, camh.org