Sable Elyse Smith

Sable Elyse Smith’s practice explores the trauma inflicted by mass incarceration. Smith’s work stems from the experience of visiting her father, an inmate, in the California state prison system for 20 years. Engaged with cinematic and poetic language, Smith does not attempt to holistically represent the effects of imprisonment, nor its racial injustice, through linear narrative. Rather, her impressionistic work suggests how textual and visual modes fail to describe bodily experience. How We Tell Stories to Children, 2015, included in the VOLTA Video Wall program, includes fragments of an interview with the artist’s father. These scenes are intercut with sequences that show figures running at the edge of the frame, just out of reach. Another group of works pairs redacted snapshots taken in prisons with texts describing the physical regulations that prison visitors must meet. In a new photographic triptych, green screen and other common names, an enlarged sliver of a family snapshot is layered upon images of a tropical mural. The mural was painted by inmates — whose severely underpaid labor extends the conditions of slavery — as a photographic background for visiting family members. The tropical scene, suggests leisure and escapism, even as the site where the photo was taken denies those fantasies.

— Wendy Vogel

Much of my practice is derived from the intersection of cinema, language, particularly the written text, and image making: construction, deconstruction, and abstraction.

I am interested in the potential of language as object-- folding itself around itself. It’s desire  for accuracy and its potential undoing. At the core of my practice is a desire to understand the many ways that trauma and violence is graphed and marked across bodies. 

To do this we must look at the trickery of memory. The poetry embedded in the fictions we create for ourselves, the fictions of our desires. The fictions of the systems and structures governing our lives.  How do we know what we’re looking at?

I work from the archive of my own body creating new syntax for knowing and not knowing, thereby marking the difference between witnessing and watching. These are two very distinct subject positions. Think of the one who bears witness and the one who watches to consume. 

My current body of work is focused on mass incarceration. Using aerial views of prison complexes as a point of reference as well as the architectural materials and markings of their interiors, I extract colors (blues in particular), demarcation lines, and other fragments that touch on the experience of visiting my father in various prisons over the past 20 years. The subsequent works examine and dismantle regulatory codes that are both embedded in the body yet deeply impersonal. The body keeps the score.

— Sable Elyse Smith

Sable Elyse Smith, And Here is a List of Names, 2016, Illuminated flashing arrow sign, plastic letters, digital c-print, plexi, 6 x 8 x 1 feet, photo credit: Nate Dorr
Sable Elyse Smith, And Here is a List of Names (front view), 2016, Illuminated flashing arrow sign, plastic letters, digital c-print, plexi, 6 x 8 x 1 feet, photo credit: Nate Dorr
Sable Elyse Smith, How We Tell Stories to Children, 2015, Video Still from Single Channel video, TRT: 5:10
Sable Elyse Smith, Men Who Swallow Themselves in Mirrors, 2017, Install shot Single Channel Video, TRT: 8:32, photo credit: Virginia Arce
Sable Elyse Smith, Establishing Shot, 2015, Concrete, screen, acrylic sheet, newsprint
48 x 24 x 20 in
Sable Elyse Smith, Untilted, 2015, Aluminum signboard, plastic letters, 36 x 30 x 2.5 in