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“The Autopoets” Tuesday Smillie on Art, Identity, and Insurrection

Shawna Lipton

Tuesday Smillie

The Hudson River Jordan, 2018

Textile, tarp, beads, fake flowers, spray paint, sequins, grommets, plastic, safety pins

72.5 x 111.75”

Tuesday Smillie is an interdisciplinary artist whose work addresses trans-feminist politics, notions of inclusion and exclusion, as well as personal and collective histories.  Her multi-layered textile collages demand a critical self-reflexive engagement from the viewer.

At her artist talk at Reed College, Smillie’s practice of invitation and refusal was on display, as she offered insight into her creative practice, while calling into question what and how the audience may think they want to know.

Smillie was born in Boston Massachusetts and moved to Portland Oregon in 2001, where she received her BFA from the Oregon College of Art & Craft in 2007. Her work has been shown across the United States and Canada, including in the show “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” (09/27/17-01/21/18) at the New Museum in New York City.

Smillie’s talk on September 12, 2019, shared themes with the 2017 anthology published in conjunction with the “Trigger” exhibition, Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (Edited by Tourmaline, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton). The book engages with visual culture and trans cultural production, while at the same time stressing the limits of representation for creating material change in light of the violence facing trans people, particularly trans women of color.

“We are living in a time of trans visibility. Yet we are also living in a time of anti trans violence,” the editors write. “This is the trap of the visual...Representation is said to remedy broader acute social crises ranging from poverty to murder to police violence.” Yet, “to the degree that anyone might consider such potential to exist within representation one must also grapple and reckon with radical incongruities” (xv-xvi).

The rhetorical and theoretical sophistication of Smillie’s talk allowed for such incongruities to linger and be contemplated.

For example, Smillie addressed the longing for representation she felt as a young person, which led to her discovering the subversive potentialities within Ursula K. Leguin’s 1969 science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Smillie imaginatively recreated the covers of various editions of the book, displaying her personal intimacy with the text at the time she was seeking possibility models and resonated with the fictional world's obliteration of gender norms. However, Smillie also acknowledged recent critiques of the book, and that it was authored by a straight cisgender white woman. The book covers are rendered with meticulous fidelity, each one unique in its details, while at the same time displaying a repetitive seriality. Smillie indicated that this is a completed series, whereas her textile work is ongoing and remains an open investigation.

This work involves seeking out real-life heroes in history, such as Smillie's tribute to activist Marsha P. Johnson, “The Hudson River Jordan.”

The artist pointed out the historical themes and callbacks in her textile collages, but sought to sidestep the trap of representation in one important sense. Speaking to a majority cisgender audience, Smillie refused to speak directly about details regarding her own transgender identity, instead offering to speak privately with trans and nonbinary people, thus retaining her right to privacy and opacity.

Smillie’s resistance to a voyeuristic cisgender gaze extends to her collaged textile works featured in the exhibition “The Autopoets.”  These pieces are inspired by the history of protest banners created by feminist and LGBTQ activists, while also acting as citational fields for literary and personal texts, a practice she calls, “critical appropriation.”

Smillie’s banners present a palimpsest of meanings, incorporating personal narrative, social history, art history, and the aesthetics of queer activism. Through tarp, tulle, beads, and text, Smillie creates a tactile viewing experience. The familiar everyday materials she employs (canvas and lace) contain memories and histories which are not literally present or immediately accessible. Through a process she describes as "embodied disembodiment" her works invite audiences to critically engage, and think through how they take in information (in the case of "The Hudson River Jordan," by alluding to the murder of a black trans woman, without recirculating imagery of black trans death).

Tuesday Smillie’s talk provided insight into her visual and historical references and inspirations, while at the same time leaving more for the audience to contemplate, about the richness of her literal and figurative materials, and about our own sense of entitlement to an artist’s personal motivation and explication.

The Autopoets” features the work of Roland Dahwen, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Tuesday Smillie.

Sponsored by Converge 45, a nonprofit that supports visual arts, and the Cooley Gallery at Reed College, it is the first exhibition of “Facing Between Centers,” a three-year program by Converge 45’s artistic director, Lisa Dent, co-curated by Cooley Gallery curator and director Stephanie Snyder. On view Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 6.

Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College

3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd., Portland, Ore. 97202