On the opening night of her current solo exhibition at Women & Their Work, Rachel Wolfson Smith stood before a teeming crowd to talk about a question that rings in her mind: what is the role of nature in the future?
Deeply introspective and observant, Smith probes potential answers to this question by studying the past and mining the present. The works in “The Future is Behind Us,” a showcase of drawings, cyanotypes, and small sculptures, glean from Smith’s research about the Victorian era and her immersion in sci-fi films and television. From these sources, Smith observes how the landscape, and the flora and fauna embedded in it, inform emotional attitudes and social mores in fictional and historical settings alike.
“The main thing that I’ve noticed through all of this research is that there’s this overlay of nature, humans and technology,” says Smith, standing at the entrance of the gallery. “It’s almost like a three-part Venn diagram, and I’m really interested in what’s going on in the middle.”
This framework may provide a narrative scaffolding to the exhibition, but Smith’s receptivity for psychological breadth and complex emotionality, and her ability to include these elusive qualities in her work, make the individual works shine. Using time as a muse and a material, Smith’s creations appear as though they contain the nascent workings of the subconscious, weaving together intractable moments where ancestral, architectural, and arboreal elements converge.
Smith’s drawings particularly reflect this immersive quality. Additive and subtractive strokes — evidence of years of labor and reflection — allow for dimensional compositions to emerge. Yet in this exhibition, she attempts to replicate this visual depth using cyanotype, a media that permanently captures more immediate and intuitive creative decisions.
In the studio, Smith would tear apart and reflexively assemble compositions of plants and bouquets, lay them out in the sun, and slowly remove certain elements to deepen and lighten certain parts of the exposure.
“There was a lot of vulnerability to it because they all had the possibility of completely bombing,” she explains. “I’ve done a lot of large-scale laborious work. I think if you’re only working on things for long periods of time you can’t see your ideas happen nearly as quickly.”
While the cyanotypes still required intensive labor and attention, these works, which evolved more rapidly as they responded to light, provided stimulus to the flow of her ideas, quickening what she calls “the process of processing.” The resulting works, which appear as though they capture scenes from the deep underwater, evoke primordial, embryonic, and dreamlike qualities.
Evidence of Smith’s attempts to preserve fleeting, generative thoughts appear in her other works. In her drawings, Smith interlaces in scraps of text, written in quick, curvaceous scrawl, into sprawling illustrations of wilderness. Often the words are drawn over or partially erased, rendering them mostly illegible.
Smith said she listens to audiobooks while she works in the studio, and often “there will be something that really moves me that I want to keep, so I’ve gotten into the habit of writing it wherever I am on the drawing.”
However, these precious snippets, contained on drawings that can exist in a state of progress for years, often succumb to new layers of graphite, forgotten allusions, or lost references. “The irony of it is that I want to keep it so bad, but inevitably, I lose it,” Smith reflects.
Storage of valuable, but practically unusable, intellectual material bore the most experimental element of the show, and the most extreme departure from Smith’s other two-dimensional works. Noticing that her family had kept every Apple product box they had ever purchased, she began to imagine these how these objects would be repurposed by future generations. In the gallery, Smith hung the lids of the packages — the trademark images of Airpods, iPads, and Macbooks hung in a linear succession on the back wall — and displayed their receptacles, each filled with delicately sculpted plant forms, underneath. Brimming with small leaves, buds, and knot-like roses, the boxes, whose bramble only becomes more intensely tangled and overflowing, function as personal-sized, artificial gardens that have become sanitized of their wildness.
Smith delved briefly into the reasons for this surprising shift. She considered questions like “What happens if nature gets to be hermetically sealed?” and explored thoughts about the emotional purpose nature might serve a future human being, craving the primal clarity elucidated in the presence of a force so vast and untamed. While her experimentation and inquiry deserves recognition, the resulting works do not remotely compare to the arresting, sublime two-dimensional pieces. Though the least mysterious and visually captivating, the sculptures require the most explanation, whereas the others confound while providing compelling clarity and insight.
At its heart, “The Future is Behind Us,” is about care. Framing nature as a timeless, boundless source of respite, wonder, and beguiling beauty, Smith examines how it provides a mirror for humanity to evaluate itself. Seeking information from the internal and external, Smith draws vigorously, unspooling the edges of emotional need. Her works capture the innermost ideas, fears, and longings felt by a person, while conveying a sense of deliverance or passage through these profuse periods of living.
They contain the essence of one of Smith’s most favorite instructive sayings: “the only way out is through.”
“The Future is Behind Us” continues through Sept. 29 at Women & Their Work.