Gary Smoot is one of the country's most remarkable cutting-edge scenic designers and installation artists. Smoot splits his time between Seattle, where most of his evocative sculptural installations have debuted, and Los Angles; where, in the last five years, some of his best set designs have appeared and then, like all theatre, melted back into the collective soup of creativity.
My first experience with Smoot's art was in the mid-90s at an exhibition of self-portraits by members of the Pound Gallery in Seattle. While most of the other work, good, bad and indifferent, hung in frames around the periphery of the small Capitol Hill gallery, Gary's self-portrait was penned in on the floor smack center. He had blown up a photo of himself to poster size, then divided it into squares on a grid. Each square was then pasted on to a cube which ran around the enclosure powered by an erratic Squiggle Ball™ toy placed inside. Folks watched enchanted as Smoot's face rearranged itself in an infinite series of patterns. Here was a consummate builder's sly but still generous answer to deconstructionism. And it was quintessential Smoot, as I was soon to learn.
The Pound Gallery's first prize for this show was the chance for the winning artist to have a one-man show. Smoot won; so a few months later Seattle extreme art fans were treated to "P.O.D." (or 'Pneumatic Oscillating Display') (1998) — described by Gary as 'a random kinetic ballet.' Spectators walked into a veritable forest of fan-powered soft plastic tubes undulating in stochastic spasms. Though "P.O.D." struck some as overtly phallic, I disagreed, finding it hypnotically affirming and happily devoid of any obvious semiotic content.
Next for Gary was "My 7th Grade," (1999), in which ping pong balls printed with the yearbook pictures of his childhood classmates were delicately balanced atop cocked mousetraps. The entire work was encased in a Plexiglas box with a single ping pong ball-sized hole at the top. The itching implication is that it would only take one more feather light ball dropped through this opening to set off all the traps and fling the entire fragile array of faces into unknown and uncountable future trajectories. The Seattle Times said, "If you like work that is smart and witty, pay it a visit."
Smoot's intimate work with mousetraps led to several bruised fingers and his next idea, "Baited," (1999), consisting of 3 perfectly enlarged and working Victor-brand mouse traps baited with life-sized cheese babies. While the comedy of this work can be conveyed with words, the innate menace involved in walking past a mouse trap overgrown for the human animal cannot. The Times called it, "... provocative and hilarious."
In 2000 Smoot unleashed his magnum opus to date with the first of four installations in his wiener cycle. People experiencing the first "wiener" walked into an empty gallery with a ten-inch wide spiral steel duct poking through one wall. A tiny bell would ring and out of the pipe would float a transparent balloon-twist wiener dog. As you followed its ascent you realized that hundreds of balloon dachshunds had already been born that way and were gradually accreting into a shape on the ceiling that looked like nothing so much as a Chihuly chandelier. He reprised this with "wiener in the woods", basically repeating the aforementioned process outdoors as part of the Ground Up Arts Festival near Duvall, Washington.
"Wiener II & III" were installed at the University of Washington CMA Gallery in Seattle, 2002, as part of the Department of Ceramics Visiting Artist Program. Displayed in the antechamber to the gallery, "wiener II" consisted of 450 black and white photos taken 14 days after the first "wiener": disturbing, practically abstract close shots of slack flaccid translucent balloons, inevitably evoking an interminable Diane Arbus retrospective of used rubbers. The meat of the exhibition lay inside the Ceramics Department's hexagonal gallery, where Gary was rolling out frozen water-filled wiener dog balloons on a conveyor belt. Over the course of three hours, Smoot estimates that around "two gross" ice dogs dropped from the belt and smashed into a pile on the floor where another three and a half days of entropy and ambient temperature returned them to their inevitable condom-esque state of final rest. This was "wiener III".
Smoot's work as a scenic designer is perhaps more obliging to the more faint-of-heart art fan, integrated as it has to be with the contending visions of playwrights, directors, actors and fellow designers. Certainly in places like Los Angeles, he's better known for his sets than his sculpture. Gary has won or been nominated for most of L.A.'s major theatre awards, including the LA Weekly Award for his design for Grendel, as well as the Theater LA Ovation Award and the Backstage West/Dramalogue Garland Award for his work on Great Men of Science, Nos. 21 & 22; but I would argue that it is the work that has gone unrecognized that is actually some of the strongest.
His design for the play Louis Slotin Sonata, produced by Circle X Theatre, consisted of a scattered array of cinder block squares placed on the floor and fitted with blue-gelled flood lights that lighted during each reiteration of Slotin's fatal accident and also during the play's more theatrical sequences. Beautiful and ethereally menacing, they perfectly supported and enhanced the action on stage while never distracting from it.
When asked to do the impossible in building set props for Paul Mullin's An American Book of the Dead – The Game Show, Gary countered by leaving the heavy lifting of imagination to the audience. For instance, instead of actually building the panoply of American weaponry called for by the playwright, ranging from a Powhattan tomahawk to a Winchester repeating rifle to a Tomahawk cruise missile, Smoot instead constructed intricate cardboard shipping containers for all of these, and then had them filled with stage smoke just before being taken on stage. The result was that when the contestant characters opened the boxes, ethereal vapors billowed out as the game show spokesmodels the mimed the invisible weaponry in the classic Smoot blend of humor and menace. When faced with the challenge of building a huge working "Bardo Wheel" patterned on the intricacies of the Tibetan Mandala, Smoot offered an empty spinning hoop of white Christmas tree lights. In description it may sound like a bit of a cop out, but I can vouch that when implemented it struck the perfect balance of mystery and vaudevillian showmanship. The show's design tour de force was Gary's idea to use three identical white refrigerators as the isolation booths, using those plastic magnet letters to spell out each enclosed contestant's name. When lit with intense gelled Fresnels were focused and on them, the white surface easily transformed into whatever color the lighting designer chose. Gary's triumphed in this instance by simultaneously evoking a refrigerated morgue drawer alongside the banality of existence within the American consumer culture.
The two fields of Gary Smoot's artistic endeavor, scenic design and installation sculpture cross-pollinate and buttress each other while sharing the common process of seamlessly embroidering horror and humor in uniquely unexpected contexts. It will be interesting to see where he takes both from here.