The work of Virginia-born artist Allison Smith focuses on how everyday objects of the past can become emblematic of national identity. Much of Smith’s practice involves creating site-specific sculptural installations, performances, and artist-led projects that encourage participants to take history into their own hands. Smith is notable for her dual commitment to objects and actions. Her keen focus on material distinguishes her from other socially engaged artists, who often eschew “things” in favor of direct action. Yet, as the artist is quick to point out, an object can be a conduit to spark dialogue and debate.
 
Many of her most powerful works combine items from popular material culture in order to reveal hidden meanings and latent possibilities. For instance The Muster (2004–6) utilized the phenomenon of American Civil War battle reenactment as a platform for unscripted performative events centered on the question, “What are you fighting for?” The more recent project The Fort (2015), created for Signal Center for Contemporary Art in Malmö, Sweden, conflates the materials used in historical reenactment culture with those promulgated by groups performing fundamentalist nationalisms.
 
Continuing in this vein with her newly commissioned work for Be Not Still, Smith debuts Untitled (blunt instruments) (2018), an assembly of seven cast-iron tiki torches evoking those used by white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. With this work, she is particularly focused on how national history is represented and expressed in monuments, the responses those monuments incite, and how personal reactions represent larger political divides. The tiki torches, familiar forms of cultural appropriation more readily associated with poolside leisure and backyard barbecues, rest against a monument-less pedestal as though left behind after a march.
 
While the installation summons the physical act of protest—patriotism performed, represented, enacted—its meaning is carried out in large part through its materiality and scale. Smith often begins research for a new work by seeking out local makers of historic crafts and apprenticing herself to them, thereby turning the act of making into a performance in and of itself. For this particular piece she worked at Carrie Furnace, a steel mill in Pittsburgh, to learn the craft of iron pouring and casting. By solidifying these charged objects in iron, Smith aspires to historicize the present moment as a strategy to move beyond it.
 
Another part of the installation, Untitled (many sides, many sides) (2018), is a cast concrete traffic cone encrusted with enamel political pins from a range of movements across the country. The artist acquired the original plastic cone from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, near the site of a later protest over the same Lee statue. She was immediately taken aback by its unusually tall, slender shape and obvious likeness to the pointed hats worn by Ku Klux Klan members. The sculpture’s surface evokes the American folk art tradition of memory jug making, in which receptacles are covered with mementos as a form of scrapbooking, as well as World War I trench art, in which belts were decorated with the medals of fallen soldiers as makeshift memorials. The cone, an actual relic, is a symbol of caution and crowd control, while its decoration reflects inclusivity and diversity, turning a usually threatening form into a memorial and a memento. The nearby torches’ subtly shimmering surfaces elicit the bloodstained street that still marks Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer’s memorial site and has since been sprinkled with glitter—a human gesture of trying to beautify, uplift, and draw attention to a terrifying moment in time.
 
Smith constantly asks: How can objects obstruct, disrupt, or interfere with social norms? How do materials and processes harbor traces of human activity and touch? How can sculptures spark action, violence, or change? Taken together, these emotionally charged sculptural objects exude an anxiety-infused aura, prompting viewers to consider contemporary debates around visual material culture, such as the removal of Confederate monuments, as a springboard for discussions on the potent materiality of sculpture and the complexities of what it represents.
 
 —Amy Owen, Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times exhibition brochure
 
 

Be Not Still
Allison SMITH Be Not Still

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA
Allison SMITH Be Not Still cast iron, cast concrete, and mixed media
Untitled (blunt instruments) and Untitled (many sides, many sides)
2018
cast iron, cast concrete, and mixed media

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA

Allison SMITH Be Not Still


"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA
Allison SMITH Be Not Still


"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA

Allison SMITH Be Not Still


"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA
Allison SMITH Be Not Still


"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA

Allison SMITH Be Not Still


"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA
Allison SMITH Be Not Still installation view
Untitled (blunt instruments) and Untitled (many sides, many sides)
2018
installation view

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA

Allison SMITH Be Not Still installation view
Untitled (blunt instruments) and Untitled (many sides, many sides)
2018
installation view

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA
Allison SMITH Be Not Still installation view
Untitled (blunt instruments) and Untitled (many sides, many sides)
2018
installation view

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA

Allison SMITH Be Not Still installation view
Untitled (blunt instruments) and Untitled (many sides, many sides)
2018
installation view

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA
Allison SMITH Be Not Still installation view
Reading Room
2018
installation view

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA

Allison SMITH Be Not Still
Photographs by Terri Garland

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA
Allison SMITH Be Not Still
Photograph by Terri Garland

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA

Allison SMITH Be Not Still
Photograph by Terri Garland

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA
Allison SMITH Be Not Still
Photograph by Terri Garland

"Be Not Still: Living in Uncertain Times," di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, CA

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