Shinique Smith outfits SCAD in the fashionating Enchantment

This Vivienne Westwood of the gallery set makes clothing her medium

For fashion devotees, clothes are as vital a form of communication as language. Stevie Nicks wouldn't be Stevie Nicks without those gauzy skirts and top hats and Queen Elizabeth just wouldn't project that "to the monarchy born" big mama vibe without those mumsy A-line dresses. It makes perfect sense then that Brooklyn-based artist Shinique Smith should take clothing, the canvas and meaning-generator we sport as our personal sandwich boards, as her medium.

A painter squeezes a tube of oil paint but this Vivienne Westwood of the gallery set is an alchemist of Benetton blouses and Harbor Bay knitwear. Smith assembles the fabrics into doughy mounds and cuts and adheres them to her swirling, colorful canvases that combine paint and found objects such as plastic bags and silk flowers. The clothes are not only evocative stand-ins for people, but also mini-canvases in their own right, with their fields of posies, minimalist patterns and pop art designs.

Enchantment is Smith's pithy show currently on view at the SCAD's Trois Gallery. The exhibition features collages of appropriated magazine pages and the fascinating sculpture "Monochrome," a work bifurcated into mounds of white clothing and mounds of black clothing lashed to a canvas with ribbons. In one regard, the piece seems a commentary on racial constructs, which tend to divide the world into black and white. But in Smith's conception of color there's also black polka dot, black zebra pattern, shiny black, matte black and shades of white ranging from chalk to French vanilla to an oxidized yellow.

Smith has created a whole semiotics of clothes, showing the loaded, meaning-generating potential of fabric. Nowhere is that idea clearer than in "A Sleep From Day." Within a kinetic vortex of paint, tie-dye fabrics, camouflage, jeans embroidered with leaves and flowers, and a vintage dress mix in a kind of fabric shorthand for the '60s.

Clothing in Smith's hands proves an interestingly malleable material, located somewhere between paint, clay and the offerings at a free-for-all rummage sale. Fabric can be flat and almost purely surface or bunched to become sculptural. But it's not Smith's only material: just as often her putty is fashion itself. In her works on paper, Smith arranges newspaper and magazine clippings into freakish blobs of hair and cloth, jewelry and skin. As often as her three-dimensional work recalls Mike Kelley's sculptures of thrift store crocheted animals, her photo collages evoke the occasionally nightmarish, Frankenstein mashups of artist Wangechi Mutu. Like Mutu, Smith takes the consumer lexicon of flashy baubles and marabou fur and platinum hair and smashes it into one disturbing lump of visual information. Brimming with multiple meanings, at its heart Smith's work is an evocation of the human experience as seen through its material culture.

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