The Art Gallery of Ontario shows off a punk legend's quieter side.
When one thinks about Patti Smith, the iconic American musician, performer, and poet, all of the most immediate associations with her name are loud. For example, her unique and dramatic performance style, which fused rock music and poetry, became extremely influential to the burgeoning punk movement in the 1970s.
Her message, also, has at times been loud. She has been almost as prolific an activist as she has been an artist, frequently writing songs and performing benefits for causes she believes in. One example is “Without Chains,” a song about a prisoner held in Guantanamo Bay for four years.
“Camera Solo,” the exhibition of Patti Smith’s photographs that will be featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario from February 9 to May 19, reveals a very different aspect of her character.
Smith’s public identity is one characterized by passion, volume, and energy. The photos in the AGO exhibit are, in contrast, quiet, meditative, and deeply intimate. On display are 70 black and white photographs, primarily taken with Smith’s vintage Polaroid camera, along with a collection of Smith’s belongings (some of them subjects of her photography, others provided for context) and a short film directed by Smith and shot by Jem Cohen.
Most of the photographs displayed are small, scarcely larger than the palm of a hand, and framed in close-knit clusters, encouraging the viewer to lean in, get close, and peer carefully. This creates a feeling of intimacy. Several themes come up again and again in Smith’s photographs: sculptures; vehicles and means of transportation; small personal objects; grave sites; and beds. Anyone viewing the show can call a toll-free number and listen to Smith herself talk about several key pieces in the gallery.
“Camera Solo” is defined by its quiet intimacy, but it’s also characterized by the reverence with which Smith handles her subjects. Through her eyes, the objects that belong to great artists are as holy as religious relics. Friends are photographed (often with their eyes closed or obscured) as though they are sculptures. Robert Mapplethorpe’s slippers are treated with utmost respect; Virginia Woolf’s bed is photographed as though it were an altar. Cutlery that was handled by Rimbaud gets similar treatment, as does Smith’s father’s coffee cup. Full of love, even a sense of mysticism, the images invite the viewer to share Smith’s quiet, and often spiritual vision.