Don't be fooled by the beauty of Seton Smith's large-scale color photographs. To spend some time with these captivating, slightly blurry, and abstract images of architectural details and landscape is to experience how mood- and mind-altering the physical world around us (both built and natural) can be. Smith is a New York-based artist, and Winston Wachter Fine Art, with galleries in New York and Seattle (203 Dexter Ave. N.), has mounted her first solo show in Seattle, running through Nov. 2. Smith has assembled work from three series, each of which creates its own dreamy yet destabilizing environment in the gallery.
Smith's photographs are always face-mounted to plexiglass in a high-heat process. The intensely saturated color – which is as reality-shifting in the cool tones of the The Snow Trees series as it is in the warm golds of Istanbul Riding – is achieved through her use of the Cibachrome technique. She photographs with a Hasselblad, which she says in the exhibition catalog "is very physical and concentrated. I can't see and shoot at the same time since I am immersed in the space and my level of perception is heightened. ... It's like being possessed in a way." Thus even in her own process, she creates for herself a level of heightened spatial awareness that she then turns around and offers through her photographs to the viewer. Click on the first photo to begin viewing the pop-up gallery. Detailed captions are below.
1. The first room contains five 6-by-4-foot photographs from Istanbul. In 2002, Smith visited the Haiga Sophia and the Topkapi Palace, and in this exhibition she offers up shots of two of the glittering gold staircases leading to the pulpit in the mosque, as well as details of mirrors, passageways, and sumptuous wall and ceiling treatments in the palace.
The staircases in Empire and Empress at first seem to promise an ascent, both up to the pulpit and on into the celestial white light burning through arches in the mosque. But the light is almost too bright, and the steep, formidably grand stairs, especially fuzzy in these photographs, suggest a state of dizzying unbalance.
2. Mirrors, like staircases, recur in Smith's work. In the palace pictures, mirrors reflect the splendor of the rooms and also work to double the walls and passageways. In this way, they both undermine the clarity of the structure of the room and project walls behind the viewer who is standing there, looking at a photograph of a room. Smith further pushes the viewer into the picture by hanging all of the photographs in the exhibition low to the ground. As she likes to say, there are no people in her photographs – except you.
3. In the second space in the gallery, four diptychs, also 6-by-4 feet, perch the viewer in the canopy of bare trees weighted with fresh, still-falling snow. From the series called The Snow Trees, these photographs were shot from a window in Smith's New York apartment during 2006, and they exude the quiet that descends on a city after a snowstorm. Alone in the black branches, you feel the blanket of the cool, pure white snow, as if on your own shoulders.
4. Four 4-by-4-foot photographs from the series Guest House (2003) occupy the last room in the gallery. These pictures are of a house on Long Island designed in the 1950s by her father, the architect and sculptor Tony Smith; her sister is the artist Kiki Smith. Books and a blue glass on a bookshelf, a picture on the wall, and a view of Long Island Sound conspire to make the viewer feel inside, and intimate with, the house. Of all the prints in the exhibition, these are the least abstracted, seeming to offer a straightforward picture of a home and the land. And yet, even here, Smith sharpens our appreciation of the psychological power of place and its ability to both sooth and unsettle. The sunshine-yellow doors seem to invite the viewer in, as they are open and cheerful color, but at the same time, they cut in half the view out the windows.
That Smith has photographed her father's work comes as no surprise; much is often made of the Smiths being a family of artists, which, when Kiki and Seton were children, was ruled by their father's dedication to his art. His projects overruled the daily domesticity of family life. Models took over the dining room table indefinitely, and father absconded with his daughters' Legos to make his own things.
Incidentally, in having a show here, Smith is "in town" with her father: SAM's Olympic Sculpture Park houses his sculpture "Stinger," big and black, lurking in the birch forest. Seton has yet another tie to the Northwest: Her mother, Jane, who was an actress and opera singer, grew up in Mount Vernon, Wash.