Baxter St announces The Chance Whale, the first solo show of 2022 Baxter St Resident and interdisciplinary artist, Gwen Smith. The Chance Whale explores Smith’s spiritual navigation from the womb to the ocean through linkages between a pre-emancipatory history of Blackness and the sea, ideas concealed in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Smith’s quest as a surfer.
Smith began surfing in Rockaway in September 2021, coincidentally in the midst of the annual whale migration, leading her to chance sightings of whales. These are the same waters Melville writes about in the first chapter of Moby Dick. “I have hit my shins on the old pylons of piers Melville describes from back then,” she says. In December 2021, Smith suffered a herniated disc, forcing her to take a break from surfing. During her recovery, she listened to Moby Dick repeatedly, as she prayed to return to the ocean.
“Surfing at Rockaway Beach led me to consider the beachness of Blackness, to reflect on the connection and importance between the Black community and the ocean.” She takes inspiration from Robin Coste Lewis’s poem Voyage of the Sable Venus, referring to an engraving created in the late 1790s, found in a journal of assets justifying the middle passage and the enslavement of Black Women from Africa to the white masses. In it the Black Venus is pictured surfing the same shell as Botticelli’s blonde.
In Smith’s work, she seeks to reclaim space rather than rewrite the stories of the past. The Chance Whale is a continuation of Smith’s personal origin story, framing collaged, kaleidoscopic portals through which we view life and the cyclical passage of time. Images of waves and wales, as well as wounds reminiscent of female sexual organs, are collaged with cut-out photographs of her own face and body and surf board. These surreal, highly saturated and patterned compositions are a means of exploring and connecting Smith’s Black American lineage, the African Diaspora, and the often-complex relationships of Black people to nature, particularly to the ocean. The Chance Whale, like Moby Dick and surfing, is an allusion to being just on the verge of emancipation and attaining freedom.