Studio Visit | Joseph Smolinski
Studio Visit | Joseph Smolinski
The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.
― Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk
A red-tailed hawk flew into Joseph Smolinski’s studio last year. At the time, Smolinski had been converting the two-garage behind his house in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven into a new workspace. The large garage doors had been removed, creating a massive opening. The large bird of prey entered and then vanished, but for a moment, Smolinski and the hawk sat quietly together inside the space.
Today the studio renovation has been completed. The new space, which he shares with his wife, Jessica, who is also an artist, feels light-filled and open. The walls are a pristine white, the gray floors, unblemished. When I visited in late January, Smolinski had curated examples from different of bodies of work: Framed drawings from his Open Water series (2016-2017) and animal portraits from another, A Question of Dominion (2015), were hung on the walls and laid on the tables. The common thread through Smolinski’s work is the environment—both neutral and more pointed depictions of the natural landscape, its inhabitants, oddities, and issues.
“I think it’s important to make images of the landscape now,” said Smolinski, whose work was included in a recent exhibition at the Mattatuck Museum called Convergence: Meditations on American Landscape. Guest curator, Jennifer Terzian paired paintings and drawings by seven contemporary artists with selections from the museum’s permanent collection: William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), George Inness (1825-1894), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), and J. Francis Murphy (1853-1921), among others. Viewers were able to draw connections between historical and contemporary artists and see how artists have approached this topic over time.
In the exhibition, Smolinski’s drawing, The Beginning of the End (2010), was shown near a painting by David Johnson (1827-1908), a second generation Hudson River School artist. During the early 19th century, this school of painters centered in the Catskills, New York celebrated the American landscape, making artistic advertisements of the country’s untouched wonders. By contrast, the aforementioned work by Smolinski depicts the edge of a body of water pierced by cell phone towers. The top portion of the composition is an inky black that fades to a sulfurous yellow along the horizon. The aura of this work on paper approaches the sublime, yet Smolinski’s tone is grim.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Smolinski attributes his dark humor to his childhood in the midwest, and more of this edge has been emerging as of late. Inside Smolinski’s studio, I previewed a few new works, some of which are still in progress. A gargantuan boulder of ice balanced precariously in the bed of a Ford F-150 pickup truck in a carefully rendered graphite drawing on paper. I also watched a video of a truck—same make and model—slowly slipping into a hole on the surface of a frozen lake. An oversized American flag affixed to the tailgate on the back passenger corner of the truck waved in the air during the scene, conflating a particular flavor of patriotism with a brazen disregard for the environment.
For Smolinski, this imagery is troubling and familiar. These images are collected from Youtube videos, memory, and news reports of Minnesotans driving their vehicles across frozen lakes—their doors ajar and windows cracked as a preposterous precaution for the inevitable. “Some people believe we are meant to conquer the landscape instead of existing within it,” explained Smolinski. His sardonic animation and drawing call attention to the repression of an important fact: the landscape will survive long after humanity perishes.
Across the studio, some of Smolinski’s sculptures underscore this idea of permanence. On wall pedestals, two white sculptures with their craggy, organic forms were recognizably snow. “I have always been fascinated with the changing of seasons,” shared Smolinski, “and these monuments that are left.” On the bottom of your car or along a dirty curb, these crusty remnants of winter persist, morphing as winter advances to spring. “The shapes of these things that are melting here are the same shapes as what is melting in the arctic,” he said.
The inspiration for these works arose when Smolinski was working on an animated video in 2015. He needed to add snow to a scene, but the plug-ins he discovered online made unrealistic renderings. Smolinski decided to 3D scan the snow outside. The digital models were then 3D printed using plastic. On the floor nearby, two more sculptures of the snow were cast in aluminum. Their mottled gray surface made them less referential, creeping into more foreign territory like a moon rock or a bizarre artifact. Alongside the white wall sculptures, it was easier to make the connection that they were also snow.
Smolinski thinks of this series of snow sculptures, rendered in different materials, in relation to Robert Smithson (1938-1973), an American artist associated with the Land Art movement. In Smithson’s 1966 essay, “Entropy and the New Monuments” , he describes how the new monuments will not be made from organic materials such as granite; inorganic materials like plastic and chrome will create monuments that do not look to the past. “They are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages,” he wrote. Monuments of this variety convey the heaviness—even hopelessness—of our era.
Overall, Smolinski’s practice teeters between overt political statements and observation, and he noted a feeling of fatigue that permeates our zeitgeist, especially related to our ecological anxieties. Humans have known about climate change for decades, and many recent works made under this large heading never address the fact that perhaps the most environmentally-friendly path is to make nothing—to consume and produce less. Less water, less fuel, less meat, less everything. In “Big Foot,” a 2008 New Yorker magazine article , staff writer Michael Specter recounts with depressing clarity how reducing one’s personal carbon footprint is a negligible step toward remediation. It can feel overwhelming to consider meaningful ways to affect positive change. Still, inaction is a lazy excuse, and one that absolves personal responsibility. We press on, sometimes by looking back.
Lately, Smolinski has been returning to the birth of the environmental movement in this country, when saving the natural landscape seemed possible. As I was leaving his studio, he showed me an issue of New York Times Magazine from August 2018. The bold cover is all black, with a singular sentence printed in the center of the page: “Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet.” We didn’t, yet we might be able to learn from the early crusaders of this movement like Wendell Berry (b. 1934). Over thirty years ago, this poet, writer, and farmer from Kentucky summarized the dilemma: “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live” . Berry believed the scope of our environmental issues could be reduced to the individual, underscoring the significance of every choice.
Smolinski’s art often illustrates our ecological authoritarianism. Many works note how humans have intervened or attempt to tame the landscape, and the tone ranges from critical to observational. When I last saw Smolinski, he told me he’d just witnessed a new visitor in his backyard outside his studio—this time, a peregrine falcon.