Her Constellation takes up one full room, the Project Space for contemporary art, in the Nelson-Atkins' new Bloch Building. This work was originally conceived as a single piece in a larger installation, Paradise Cage, at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, but Smith has reconfigured it for the Nelson. Here, she has translated her interest in bodies, myths, storytelling and systems to depict animals related to astrology, such as Leo, Taurus, Capricorn, Pisces and Cancer. Working with an Italian glassmaker, she cast stars and animals in glass, and animal excrement in bronze, and set them atop Nepalese, handmade blue paper to represent the night sky.
Individually, the glass animals and stars and the bronze pellets are beautifully realized and intriguing. The blue paper, however, has a deadening effect. Like all dark matte surfaces, this one pulls in the light, creating a flat and dull surface. I kept thinking how much better the piece would have looked had it been placed directly on the black floor — the glass interacting with the floor's reflection, the light bouncing off the glass pieces. But the paper prohibits the light from moving around.
The best vantage point is from a low bench at one end of the rectangular installation. From this closer point of view, it's easier to appreciate the individual pieces — the way that the glass, for example, has been augmented with gold to create a shimmery effect. Yet each animal seems isolated, unrelated to the others. A more purposeful grouping might have allowed Smith to create some dialogue between groups of animals, more effectively directing a viewer's gaze around the piece. Smith has always been one of my favorite artists, but this installation doesn't represent her rich and complex visual vocabulary.
What does work in the new Bloch Building — and may get overlooked — is a gorgeous installation in the diminutive Elaine Broudy Polsky Gallery. This light-filled corner of the building is now home to a sensitive and artfully installed presentation of contemporary American studio ceramics.
A gold luster-glaze pot by Beatrice Wood and pieces by Otto and Gertrud Amon Natzler are reminders of the past century's most gratifying clay work. The Natzlers, who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1930s, were known for their elegant, simple, thin-walled pots and beautifully textured surfaces. Beatrice Wood was a Natzler student in Los Angeles, though her works are looser and less technical than theirs.
Don't miss this installation. It's also where you'll find a beloved piece by Ken Ferguson, former head of the Kansas City Art Institute's ceramics department.