“Mother tongue” refers to an individual’s native language or an inherited form of communication associated with one’s origin. The term takes for granted that we consider both history and location when deciphering innate characteristics of dialect. However, it would be imprudent to simply think of language as speech; communication involves a myriad of ingredients such as social norms, the ways in which a body can express sentiment, and even the objects we keep. These elements become fragments that are then excavated to better comprehend relationships to the past, present, and future.
Language, in all its connotations, figures prominently in the art of Barb Smith (b. 1979 in Kokomo, IN). Smith communicates through both material and body. In the same way one acquires elocution, she studies how materials and objects interact with the human body. Aspects such as utility, scale, and form all start to play active roles within the work. Few things could be more human than deciphering and ascertaining meaning from the objects we make and encounter. The found and hand-crafted objects populating Smith’s visual universe, in turn, suggest an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and syntax all their own. The artist’s individualized languages are a catalyst for understanding memories and experiences with renewed clarity.
Smith’s systematic assessment of the meaning of objects is rooted in the Midwestern values in which she was raised. Like most things that are passed from generation to generation, she holds great appreciation for resourcefulness and the ways in which definitions can be multifaceted. Smith’s studio could be considered a giant “catch-all drawer,” the place where individuals store items that may serve a purpose later. She carefully collects objects that hold individualized meaning, but which can also be repurposed to express something new. By operating in this manner, her artwork can be simultaneously obscure yet welcoming, or small yet profound.
Like all artists, Smith’s language is unique to her history. However, these works purposefully leave space for viewers to connect with objects in their own personal and familiar ways. Each sculpture, photograph, or video carries a universal syntax that can be understood by those unfamiliar with her idiom.