Patti Smith

Toronto

Patti Smith: Scripture, Glasgow Cathedral (2007): Gelatin silver print. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © Patti Smith, 2012.Patti Smith: Scripture, Glasgow Cathedral (2007): Gelatin silver print. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © Patti Smith, 2012.

By Lee Henderson

Patti Smith
Art Gallery of Ontario
February 9  – July 14, 2013

I'm always sceptical when a punk band comes out of retirement. I suppose this is because it often ends up feeling like a cash grab, even if a sometimes endearingly honest one. (Take, for example, John Lydon's Molson-sponsored "Blind Date" gig in 1996; after playing a couple of songs, Lydon told belligerent fans, "We can easily go home, you know. We've already been paid.") The still-active musician and poet Patti Smith, however, is not on a comeback tour. Rather, the exhibition Camera Solo presents Smith's photography, a departure from the fields with which she is typically identified.

Smith's photographic images are consistent with her status as a punk rock innovator, if only in a technical sense. Her camerawork is sloppy, jagged and uneducated. Smith's hand is unstable, with motion blur and poor focusing afflicting many of her images. The few large inkjet prints in the AGO exhibition are riddled with digital compression artefacts. The subjects captured by her camera are nearly always flatly centred, middle-distance compositions. Like a tourist who provides no new perspective on how light falls across the Grand Canyon, Smith is satisfied with showing viewers that she has simply been to the Grand Canyon. Her interest is in demonstrating rather than investigating.

Patti Smith: Arthur Rimbaud’s Utensils, Musee Rimbaud, Charleville (2005): Gelatin silver print. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. Purchase through gift of Robinson A. and Nancy D. Grover. © Patti Smith, 2012.Patti Smith: Arthur Rimbaud’s Utensils, Musee Rimbaud, Charleville (2005): Gelatin silver print. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. Purchase through gift of Robinson A. and Nancy D. Grover. © Patti Smith, 2012.What, then, of her subject matter? Nearly all are personal effects (a hat, a pair of gloves, a bed) of Smith's literary influences. If this gesture is one of homage, it enacts it like a blunt instrument, lacking the nuance and complex humanity of Smith's musical and verbal/textual oeuvre. The exhibition also includes a few objects collected by Smith, which enact a similar indexicality; one of the more successful examples is a stone, taken from the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself, set in a display case. The quiet anonymity of the stone and its tenuous connection to the writer's suicide loads it with vicarious tragedy but seems, surprisingly, to undermine any attempt by the living to comprehend the dead. To a keen viewer, however, Camera Solo is not really about artistic or intellectual influence, nor is it even about death (a tempting interpretation, given the mortality of many of her favourite poets and her choice to photograph their tombstones). Camera Solo — an exhibition that undoubtedly owed its audience, and indeed its very existence, to the profile of the artist — is entirely about fame.

Navigating the prints and their labels, I could not help feeling like I was in an intellectual version of Madame Toussaud's, so prevalent was the tactic of loaded name-dropping on objects of little consequence otherwise. It therefore comes across as an accidental commentary on the exhibition's context itself; Camera Solo sees an artist who is best known for being part of a social project — leading a band and interacting with an audience — here performing, momentarily and on a different stage, a private and personal tune. However, there is neither a sense of play nor rebellion here. The show is indeed a solo, but if punk rock has taught us anything, it's that a solo is always trumped by a riff.