Date March 6, 2024
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Brown’s Bell Gallery celebrates groundbreaking performance artist Barbara T. Smith

An exhibition of Smith’s work and objects is the only East Coast presentation of a show organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A cast-resin squash. Some 40 feet of knitted yarn. A Xerox of a hand. While Barbara T. Smith is best known for her ephemeral performance art, much of her work has been preserved through such tangible objects.

These and an array of other items — including photographs, drawings and performance-related ephemera — surveying Smith’s bold experimentation are on view through June 2 at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery in an exhibition titled “Barbara T. Smith: Proof.” It is the only East Coast presentation of a show organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

“It’s the first time her work has been seen in its fullness,” said organizing curator Jenelle Porter, who worked closely with Smith to develop her first museum retrospective. “One of the things I wanted to highlight is that Barbara, like many artists who work in time-based media, still makes stuff. And she saved everything. I literally went through her drawers.”

photo of hand
Barbara T. Smith's "Signifier 4," made in 2016. Courtesy of Cirrus Gallery & Cirrus Editions Ltd.

The groundbreaking California-based artist used her life and her body to explore themes related to feminism, spirituality and power. Smith, 93, who now considers herself retired from art, was in many ways ahead of her time. At the beginning of her career, in the mid-1960s, as she transitioned from a housewife to a radical feminist creator, she was one of the first artists to create work using the Xerox machine.

Starting in the late ’60s, she developed more than 160 performances, including ritual meals, like the 1973 “Feed Me,” when she sat naked in a restroom and invited visitors in to “nourish” her with her consent. A single photograph from that performance, the only documentation of the event Smith permitted, is on view as part of the exhibition.

Bell Gallery/Brown Arts Institute Associate Curator Thea Quiray Tagle worked with Porter to adapt the exhibition, initially presented at the ICA LA last fall, for The Bell. It marks the first time a performance artist has been featured in a solo presentation at the gallery. Smith’s innovative work aligns well with the gallery’s exhibitions program and with the spirit of Brown’s Open Curriculum.

“Barbara is a visionary who taps into what a lot of faculty and students at Brown are interested in, which is an intersection of performance art with object making, and an intersection of science and technology with arts and humanities,” Quiray Tagle said.

The Bell Gallery is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; on Thursdays and Fridays, it is open until 8 p.m. Admission is free.