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Smudge Studio looks below the visual layer

Inconvenient depth
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  November 7, 2012

THE ROUTE Smudge Studio and USM students traveled Casco Bay on October 16.

Here in Maine, nature is sublime, the views are picturesque, and a lot of the art scene's ideas are expressly visual. That could explain why examples of relational work, where the art is found not in the object but in human or social interaction, are so hard to find in Maine art. It's even more rare that one so urgently speaks to a contemporary issue, as the collaborative art group Smudge Studio does with "Zuihitsu: Look Only at the Waves," the challenging and prescient exhibit in USM's Woodbury Student Center in Portland.

"Zuihitsu" is a representation of an interactive, site-specific investigation of the Casco Bay islands conducted on an October 16 expedition by USM students led by Smudge Studio, the New York artists Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth, who make relational art out of "sites and moments where the geologic and human converge" using historical, poetic, and scientific approaches.

If that sounds too academic for you, you're in luck. Since the exhibit opened, the disasters of Hurricane Sandy have rocketed the concepts behind Smudge Studio's art into dire, everyday reality. "Zui," the root character of the Japanese word zuihitsu, translates to "at the mercy of the waves," a condition that has been made terrifyingly literal along much of the Atlantic coast (Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood, where Smudge has its studio base, was hit especially hard). The natural environment, which Smudge refer to simply as "the geologic," has once again captured America's attention. And while this USM exhibit does not directly address massive, calamitous weather formations, it's virtually impossible to view without thinking of the destruction of the past week and the increasingly urgent demands to address climate change it has prompted.

At USM, Smudge Studio share four of the dozens of geological projects they've undertaken since their inception in 2007, and "Zuihitsu" might be the show's most difficult project to grasp. The intentions driving the other three investigations are more clearly represented and product-based; of them, "Geologic City: a Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York (2011)" sheds the brightest light on what Smudge is all about. On display is a 20-piece sitemap of New York landmarks the duo have reframed with the lens of "deep time," breaking the icons down to raw materials traced to their geological source and context. One landmark explains that the "Taxi Yellow" of NYC cabs is actually a synthetic paint called DuPont M6284, a hydrocarbon mixture made from crude oil. Another traces a small staircase carved into a piece of Central Park bedrock to its blueprint 150 years ago, Smudge refiguring the design as "geopoetry."

The comparably elusive "Zuihitsu" is represented on a long wall by two drawings of the Casco Bay islands (and a link to one six-minute YouTube video), symbolically overlaid with poetry, representative illustrations, Polaroids, fabric assemblages, and meditations on the binary of arrival/departure. Obscure though it may be, Smudge's trip in the bay succeeds as relational work by positioning an everyday act — taking the ferry to the islands — as a radically decontextualized event, where conventional meaning and utility are suspended.

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