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The high priestess of rock ‘n’ roll ‘n’ . . . art

by Monty Dipietro

Patti Smith has shown her drawings and paintings before in Japan — some years ago at the Museum Eki in Kyoto. But it is a safe bet that most of her Japanese fans are more familiar with Smith the rock’n’roller, that sexily disheveled female version of Mick Jagger who kicked out prepunk jams from New York City during the 1970s.

The music press loved to call Smith “the high priestess of rock” and there are still a heck of a lot of people out there who, upon hearing her name, will sift through the detritus of their youth and find the then semiscandalous cover of Smith’s hit album “Easter” before exclaiming, “Oh yeah, that girl with the underarm hair!”

Well, those people don’t really know Smith, and I guess I didn’t really know her either. Last Friday I stopped by the opening of “Strange Messenger and Cross Section: The Work of Patti Smith” at the Parco Gallery in Shibuya, and all that changed.

The exhibition features more than 100 drawings, paintings, photographs, memorabilia and documentation from Smith’s work in the visual arts. The pieces span a period of some 35 years, from the late 1960s, when the Chicago-born Smith first teamed up with her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe in NYC, to the present. Offered for sale here (at 100,000 yen apiece) are some 40 new, postcard-size, editioned silver gelatin prints.

This is a busy show, and what the wide variety of subjects and media and styles make very clear is that Smith, 56, is a thoroughly modern, very good — and woefully underappreciated — American artist.

A main focus here is a series of drawings and silkscreen prints Smith did in the aftermath of the downing of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in 2001. Smith was in her New York City home when the attacks occurred, and in the aftermath spent time with volunteers.

With much reflection, she worked to bring her complex feelings to form in her studio. On Sept. 17, she wrote in her diary: “I know why I mourn our Towers. Because they were young and symbolized the optimistic strength of our young nation. My wall has twin sheets of paper. There is no image. I have decided that is my portrait. Not what we see, but what we don’t see and will never see again. Two pure white sheets empty as the sky to the right of my stoop, at the base of my street.”

The World Trade Center pieces, executed from late 2001 through 2002, are medium-to-large (50-cm high or larger) works on paper. The leitmotif is an image of part of the shell of the South Tower, a twisted steel lattice that ended up planted in the heap of debris at ground zero.

Smith took the original image from a newspaper (much as Warhol did with his “disaster” series), largely because the composition reminded her of the 16th-century painting by Pieter Bruegel, “The Tower of Babel.” She then employed a variety of media (graphite, color pencil, silk screen and/or digital printing) to create the series. Particularly impressive is when Smith painstakingly uses cursive scripts to delineate images, as in “South Tower, Surah XVIII 57 Quaran.” The words and phrases that form the shape of the ruined structure are taken from Smith’s own writing and from sources such as the “Gospel of Peace of the Essences,” the Koran, and others.

This use of language as both form and content is not new for Smith — there are examples here of a similar approach in her earlier pieces. (Remember, Smith is also “the high priestess of punk poetry!”)

Also here from her earlier days are a number of excellent figure studies, pencil-on-paper works much lighter in mood, in which the subjects have exaggerated genitals or other features. Some of these pictures might look rough, even crass at first glance — a little like Smith herself. There are, though, fine lyrical qualities waiting to be discovered in this body of work.

A large photograph at the entranceway to this show sees Smith posed with her latest rock band, and really, with the faded jeans and work boots and tangled hair she looks like “one of the boys.” Of course, this rock-star image is just that, an image, and (with apologies to Oscar Wilde) it is probably better to be talked about as “that girl with the underarm hair” than not to be talked about at all.

But this exhibition illustrates that there are also some very fine lyrical qualities waiting to be discovered in Patti Smith, the artist.