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Allison SmithSet Dressing

Various fabric swatches in an opened book.
Installation view, Allison Smith: Set Dressing, The Arts Club of Chicago, 2014.
Various fabric swatches in an opened book.
Installation view, Allison Smith: Set Dressing, The Arts Club of Chicago, 2014.

Past exhibition

Allison Smith: Set Dressing

About the Exhibition

The Arts Club of Chicago is pleased to announce Allison Smith: Set Dressing. Known for her combined interest in the cultural phenomenon of historical reenactment and the social histories embedded in craft practices, Allison Smith has staged performances, demonstrations, installations, and workshops in spaces ranging from her storefront studio in Oakland, California, to the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, or the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where she recently participated in the Artists Experiment initiative. These projects have engaged the public in such historic trades as indigo dyeing, stoneware pottery, crewelwork embroidery, theorem painting, and various forms of trench art.

For The Arts Club, Smith’s first solo exhibition in Chicago, she presents a series of photographic works printed on linen that explore the relationship between materiality and performativity. Beginning with a reenactment of Raphaelle Peale’s Venus Rising from the Bath—A Deception, c. 1822, the exhibition takes on our fascination with reconstructing moments from the past. It features a series of images taken over the course of the past decade at living history museums such as Colonial Williamsburg, Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, and others, as well as found imagery from ephemeral sources such as auction catalogues and interior design magazines. Focusing on the evocative power of objects and spaces as precipitates of lost cultures, these images animate their subjects in surprising ways. The puffed sleeve of a calico dress seems inhabited, while a carefully curled wig turned away mimics its human analog. Mirrors, doors, hallways, and windows suggest entry into mysterious spaces, while sculptural furniture including tilt-top tables and braided rugs suggest the gallery as a backdrop or stage set for performative acts of the viewer. This exhibition draws historic forms into the present to show how materials and making reveal what is valued in any particular moment or culture.

For her installation Fancy Work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2010, Smith looked to an exuberant early 19th-century decorative arts movement known as American Fancy to trace an alternate lineage for modernist abstraction and psychedelic light shows, creating a kaleidoscopic quilt top that served as a projection screen for a faceted mirror wall sconce and outsized electrified candle. In her project Rudiments of Fife and Drum at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in 2013, she explored the history of American fife and drum music, tracing its roots to the Middle East and reconsidering the emblematic rope tension drum as a communication device. Smith worked with traditional drum makers and musicians to make instruments and compose music that was performed throughout the summer at parades and musters. Within Smith’s oeuvre, such spectacles of the outmoded are made to question the links between national identity, craft, social participation, and war. As Roberta Smith has written in the New York Times, “Her subject is a skewed Americana at once nostalgic and biting.”

About the Artist

Born in Manassas, Virginia, and educated at The New School, Parsons School of Design, Yale University, and the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, Allison Smith is a tenured professor and chair of the Sculpture Program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She has exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad including solo shows or performances at the San Francisco Museum of Art, Public Art Fund, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Berkeley Art Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, among others. Her work is in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Saatchi Gallery London, and other public and private collections worldwide.