/ARCHIVE — 2014
/DOUGLAS SMITH — CATHARSIS
/Aristotle described "Katharsis" as an experience through purging; believing that dramatized tragedy in theatre and the arts is therapeutic for a public audience. Some modern catharsis theorists controversially propose that simulated violence may do the same. My exhibition of drawings considers these concepts as points of departure, advocating for neither wholly. Through hybrid narratives, I explore the idea of visual spectacle and cathartic ruminations, weaving ideas of human migration and the precariousness of our social and ecological environment. In a diagrammatic language of my own device, CATHARSIS attempts to infer the realm of an invented trans-nation collective psyche.
/DOUGLAS SMITH was educated at the University of Manitoba in the Fine Arts Diploma Program. Originally a sculptor, his practice now focuses on a large-scale ongoing drawing project.
DOUGLAS SMITH: DRAWING FROM NOWHERE
Doug Smith gives the impression of drawing from distant heights. Like a Patinir or Bruegel for the age of mass surveillance, he makes us look down, assume the position of a clandestine sniper, a triumphant dictator or an orbiting satellite. Flocks of birds, swarming butterflies and other allusions to nature are exceptions that prove the rule. Mostly, the diminutive stencilled couches, televisions, airplanes, helicopters, tanks and soldiers in formation that flow across his latticed and layered grounds appear plotted with mechanical indifference. Humane society has been re-engineered, along with nature, into a bleak totalitarian aberration bent on containment, cloning and spectacle; an “enlightened earth…radiant with triumphant calamity.” 1
We seem to find ourselves at great remove from events below, but prolonged consideration of Smith’s large graphite renderings reveals that this impression is not completely accurate. Our attention is aroused and held by scenes that appear unnaturally skewed, radically schematized. The lens this Winnipeg-based artist makes us look through (darkly) is often distorting and disorienting. While certain passages suggest flat demarcated swaths of unambiguous terra firma—fields, walkways, landing pads, sports arenas—they often share the page with others that lack clarifying spatial cues. One sort of “ground” slips abruptly into another, and back again. The left panel of Catharsis IV-3, for instance, establishes clear distinction between figure and ground, providing a sense of order that quickly dissolves, however, in the right half of the drawing. And yet, together, both sides are the foundation of shared activity; they operate according to different spatial programs, but somehow remain interconnected. In Schematic for a Utopian Event, the spatial ambiguity is thoroughgoing. In this work, operation symbols—addition, subtraction, multiplication, reload—replace iconic ones, further militating against our effort to gauge depth and distance, or even know whether such an aim is relevant. The drawings provoke doubts about the position we, as viewers, have been made to occupy. Confronted by multiple, incommensurable and yet impossibly contiguous perspectives, we are unable to alight on or project from any one vantage point. Spend enough time with Smith’s drawings, and the view from on high turns out to be the view from nowhere in particular.
“Somewhere” is a locational and relational concept. At any given moment, we understand and can express that we are somewhere because we simultaneously understand and can express that we are not somewhere else. Even when lost, we make a relational distinction between where we are and where we think we should be. Having sobered up or awoken from a dream, believing that we never physically inhabited the places imagined, we nonetheless express our experience in spatial terms, as “coming down from a high” or “returning from dreamland.” We always find ourselves somewhere and never (except in a trivial sense) nowhere. But what is nowhere? Grammatically speaking, it seems locational and relational. Semantically, however, it behaves very differently from its compound relative. If to be somewhere implies not being somewhere else, we would expect that being nowhere implies being nowhere else; but this analogy seems only to add confusion to incoherence. The idea of a possible plurality of “nowheres” is counterintuitive even though the idea of a potentially infinite number of “somewheres” seems plausible. “Nowhere” is also strangely unable to express proximity. One can say that “I’m going somewhere down the road,” but never “I’m going nowhere down the road.”“Nowhere,” despite its implications of place, cannot be placed within physical or mental space, which renders any effort to make it the vantage point from which to visualize anything—anyplace—nonsensical.
“Nowhere” is elusive, but I think it remains a rich and captivating concept all the same, and more than just an insidious trick of language. It’s an idea that subsists in our minds because, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel has persuasively argued, we’re haunted by two distinct but intimately connected understandings of reality. We understand reality, on the one hand, as the constant blur of immediate impressions and ideas, sensed, conceived and conjoined in overlapping succession. These form our personal experience and imply intimate access to reality from what we suspect to be a unique point of view. Yet, in framing our point of view as unique, we also understand it as being distinct from others, and therefore limited. This simple act of cognitive repositioning behoves even the radical solipsist to take a metaphorical step back and outside of herself, and recognize reality as that which is simultaneously perceived by potentially infinite points of view. In so doing, we recognize a centerless perspective, a view on reality, as it were, from nowhere. 2
Smith, we might say, dramatizes the view from nowhere in his drawings. Moreover, he dramatizes this metaphysical idea in order to inform and enrich the urgent but otherwise vague social critique that resonates throughout his work. It isn’t that Smith draws empty dystopian fictions to forewarn against possible totalitarian futures. Rather, his drawings lead us to recognize mass surveillance as the manufactured externalization of our inborn cognitive ability to conceive reality as something beyond our unique and partial subjective point of view. True to Smith’s interest in cathartic experience, his drawings both promote a fearful recognition and overturn our expectations, revealing the limits of human agency and self-knowledge, by suggesting that if there is an enemy, he is indeed us.
1 Max Horkheimer and Theodore W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, E. Jephcott, (trans.), G. Schmid Noerr, (ed.) (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2002), p. 1.