Jo Smail: New Beginnings


Jo Smail, born and educated in South Africa, has lived in Baltimore since 1985, and taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art since 1988.

In 1995, a fire destroyed all of Smail’s work. In the face of a lost past, incinerated memories, she became preoccupied with the inside of her husband’s elbow. Smail recalls, “I had to begin. Pink felt appropriate: Small, insignificant, baby girl, first steps, new skin, soft…What to draw? Something straightforward, like knitting ‘plain.’ Begin with a single unit and see where it takes me.”

A new body of work, the Pink series, emerged, in which each geometric shape was skin, and the space between shapes analogs of human relationships, close or distant in emptiness. Speaking about this period of her life, Smail echoed Helene Cicoux’s resolve to “immerse myself in nothingness. This will be my courage: to abandon comforting sentiments from the past.” Smail discovered that “nothing is not uninteresting,” and began asking herself if loss could be the seed bed of love.

Installation view of New Beginnings

Then she suffered a devastating stroke, in 2000. Again, she began again. Battling her brain damage, including loss of speech and mobility, Smail’s spills of black paint, not fully controlled, became her way of making sounds. She took comfort in the security of simple, identifiable forms and used her mistakes as springboards. In these paintings and prints, things, sounds, actions, ideas, and the relations between things take form, as if conjured from the void by the logic of a secret system of conceptual synaesthesia. Smail’s black forms manifest like puppets against backdrops of subtle colors or geometric grids, iterations against silence-the nothing that is something. The exhibition includes paintings titled “Stutter,” “My Father’s Voice,” and “Code.” There are paintings that celebrate being able to write such things as “tongues wag,” words that though Jo Smail had learned to repeat she could not voluntarily speak.

These paintings and prints, in paralleling Smail’s relearning of words and writing and their attachment to corresponding concepts in the world, also suggest how arbitrary all systems of attaching meaning are, yet how inevitable and automatic they appear to us. They embroil us in a compact of consensus while simultaneously pointing back into the abyss where everything is alphabet soup. In this they are like totalitarian regimes, the experience of which Jo Smail shares with her compatriot, William Kentridge, who also shares her interests in communication.

Jo Smail and William Kentridge at the opening of New Beginnings

Included on this exhibition are eleven collaborations with Kentridge, created long-distance, sending papers from one to the other. These works reflect a seamless blend of their techniques and aesthetics, in which their stark, silhouetted, sometimes collaged and often burdened forms lurch or hesitate in vast spaces, evoking existential battles and fragile realities.

Jo Smail is represented in numerous public and private collections, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Pollock- Krasner Foundation Grant, in 1996.