Continuing through May 22, 2021
“The (Tense) Present,” a solo exhibition by Neal Ambrose-Smith (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation of Montana), begins with the only figure-less and color-rich work: “č̓ č̓en̓ u kʷes xʷúyi (Where are you going?)” is a 15 x 20’ neon scribble, mounted and beaming on the wall. It hangs high overhead in the entryway of 516 Arts, setting the tone for the rest of the show. The line’s variable colors light up in different combinations — a streak of red turns pink when illuminated, then comes a bright purple-blue, a neon yellow blooms, then the bright green. Sometimes the whole array lights up at once, like a single line of thought. The line is tangled, entwined, impossible to straighten out and organize into discrete parts. That is the point. In an exhibit otherwise comprised of story paintings that rearrange iconic symbols, this neon sculpture abstracts and diagrams the story of our present moment, a story without a clear beginning or end. One with multiple arcs, not just one. Even as that line strains against itself, the scribble is formally coherent. “Here we are together,” the sign seems to say, “standing in a big mess.” Colors shift, casting different glows upon the entryway. “Now,” the neon hums: “where to?”
Subsequent galleries feature paintings, collage, monoprints or some combination thereof that Ambrose-Smith produced in response to the collective social, political and environmental distress of our time. Not surprisingly, the paintings contain pops of color but are overwhelmingly monochrome. Astute compositions combine techniques, materials, symbolic figures, and aesthetic registers. Like a DJ mixing sound, Ambrose-Smith mixes styles on the picture plane regardless of their hierarchical import. Abstract Expressionist marks and color fields are interrupted with realistic trailer symbols that stamp a surface. Paintings are otherwise populated by butterfly outlines, collaged broker contracts or advertising slogans, penciled construction notes, heavily applied painted cursive, and figures culled from the artist’s childhood lexicon. They are imbued with a touch of Guston, Warhol, Basquiat, and graffiti. Think, too, of the Alice in Wonderland-and-velveteen rabbit figure, or Max from “Where the Wild Things Are,” or the coyote trickster. These same figures are featured in multiple works, rearranged in different combinations and gathering potency through repetition, serving as archetypes through which Ambrose-Smith refracts the present.
While the coordination of these different pictorial strategies is impressive, some of the strongest works are deceptively simple by comparison. “Romance Is Where You Find It, It’s Just the Matter of Wearing It All the Time” is a loose, mixed media drawing of Marvin the Martian with a Native headdress on his helmet. A black scribble runs parallel to the Martian’s face, obstructing his view. The figure is situated on a loosely gridded background whose boxes are sometimes filled in with black, white or gray. The alien icon, naturalized by childhood cartoons, concentrates questions that stream throughout the show: What is home? What is center? Who belongs? Who is alien? What is permanent? Where are we going?