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Suzie Smith: Second Hand by Amy Karlinsky

“This fascination with collecting and sorting becomes just as much my artistic process as drawing or painting.”

Winnipeg, home to Suzie Smith’s Albert Street studio in the Exchange, is the city of palpable layers. Change is just slow enough to be able to recognize previous incarnations. A Main Street dive is turned into an organic eatery. Nighttime stencil artists blanket the city with visual exhortations. Graffiti-laden buildings speak new cultural appropriations. The art of retouching comes in many forms. As Smith explains of her project Second Hand, “I wanted to have a bit more fun like when you were a kid and drew a moustache on someone’ s portrait.”

Printing in black and white on second hand record albums, the long-playing records of yesteryear, Smith reorients the image, revealing its layers and adding new ones. She scours the secondhand shops of Value Village and the Mennonite Central Committee stores, repurposing languishing polka parties, earnest choirs and sixties icons into items of humour, vulnerability and beauty. Smith’s use of the minimalist palette of black and white allows her to mask out areas and limit the expressive elements. She leaves a remainder, which she then extends through an added graphic line, a shape or an iconic image. It’s deconstruction and reconstruction. Album covers are ostensibly the ready- made signs of hyper communication. The ersatz personalities, shameless self-promotion, and choreographed expectations are advertisements hinting at interior contents. Smith subverts these signs of compressed expressivity, and leaves in only what she wants us to know. “Second Hand is about creating new meaning from what is overlooked or discarded. It talks about communication, what we chose to say and what we hold back or disguise.”

The project crystallized when Smith found a didactic poster lying around at the studio, and painted out aspects of the image, leaving the para-military ritual around nationalism intact. The project could have unfolded into an analysis about socialization and gender stability. But Smith, who works with notions of seriality, developed the two-dozen images in Second Hand with a deft and light hand to tease out comic characteristics and establish new meanings based her own terms of engagement. “I use the image already on the cover as a starting point for my screenprint collage.”

Smith transforms the palimpsest of history as a collector and a printmaker. In Second Hand, the aspirations of universality embedded in offset lithography and coloured photography become personalized and ambiguous. Her interest in multiples, anachronistic objects, and the packaged goods of celebrity and mass culture in relation to screenprinting has been operative for a while now. Her work in Supernovas at The Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2006, featured screenprints on fabric, soft sculpture multiple dolls of Tina Turner, Frida Kahlo, Yoko Ono, Courtney Love, and Johnny Cash. In Second Hand, Smith mines the recent discards of culture for her playful subversions.

In the installation, complete with a record player and albums for sampling, two vertical lines of prints establish a horizon for viewing. Smith is aware that these are loaded mysteries, narrative and visual puzzles for the viewer to unravel. Some album covers have up to five layers of white and still the ghosted images come through. Others are rendered mute by opaque layers of black, stencils made to align perfectly to blanket all but a suggestive element or series of elements. The idiosyncratic variety of the ready- made albums, cultural objects that are already insanely suggestive—a school counselor talking to teens, an oversize kitten with a ball of wool, a larger than life personality—are made to speak new idiolects. The results are quite magical.

In Squiggle Noise, a disembodied hand traces a pattern. A jazz line is rendered into a graphic one. New psychic arcs among the members of musical troupes are configured in Mix and Match. Squiggles, floral motifs, dashes, lines and thought bubbles trace out undertones of menace. Dark Thoughts, for example, takes the innocence and idealism of the image and hints at secret desires and new contexts. Devices of causation are added spontaneously. Smith’s line is always fresh, handmade and spontaneous. Sometimes, simple adjustments in the original image orientation, moving an album one quarter turn to the left, or shifting the bottom to the top teases out new meanings—a nimble move honed by Smith’s fluency as a printmaker, where reversals and visual thinking, backwards from the final design, are common. The choices made by Smith are a kind of random fandom, playful and joyous—never overstated.

Smith printed Second Hand at l’Atelier de l’Île de Val-David, Quebec, in a two-week long emerging artist residency, inspired by “the history of the object, torn edge and the worn surface,” and also by McGill Professor Will Straw’s discussion of material culture (see Exhausted Commodities; The Material Culture of Music). With a background in video, textiles and printmaking, the discards of culture and the cycles of obsolescence fascinate Smith. “I cut things up and put things back together … I could do a whole series on Nana Mouskouri or Roger Whittaker.” Second Hand at Open Studio is a work of reclamation and invention, familiar enough to tell us something about ourselves—our psychological frailties and vulnerabilities of spirit—yet foreign enough to begin new propositions about play, the imagination, and social networks.

Amy Karlinsky is a Winnipeg-based writer.