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Constant Flux

 


Constant Flux
Owen Smith explores how art affects our thinking, culture and values

About the Photo: Old Dead White Men Products, 19912006
Artist's multiples, various materials and dimensions
 

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Evolution of the New
Multiplicity appears to be a mantra for University of Maine Professor of Art Owen Smith
 

Owen Smith
Owen Smith

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Sometime in the late-1950s, Fluxus began to appear on the landscape. Decidedly contagious and surprisingly robust, it bounced from city to city in tattered knapsacks and the trunks of Buicks, establishing itself whenever and wherever it found a compatible host. It crept down back alleys and lingered in the flickering light of subway tunnels. It drifted into living rooms, offices and public parks. From elegant high-rise apartments to cramped fourth-floor walk-ups, it seemed Fluxus was everywhere.

Fluxus was, and continues to be, a pivotal movement in the development of contemporary art, music and performance. An attempt to reposition art back into people's everyday lives, Fluxus was nothing short of a creative revolution, and, like all good revolutions, it questioned the norm, bucked the system, and placed the power of change firmly in the lap of the people.

University of Maine artist and professor Owen Smith could easily be described as one of the high priests of Fluxus. The author of the book Fluxus: The History of an Attitude, and numerous articles about the Fluxus phenomenon, Smith is a highly respected historian on the genre. He also is an accomplished artist. And, as Smith readily admits, the marriage of the two professions can be a bit complicated.

"Even though I'm a Fluxus historian, I don't call myself a Fluxus artist," says Smith, whose expressions of art range from performance pieces and installations to paintings and video. "There are a lot of similarities between my work and Fluxus: in how I engage in thinking about art, where art exists and what it looks like. My work is in the Fluxus vein, but I am not a Fluxus artist."

In truth, the matter of who is and who isn't a Fluxus artist is a point of contention among historians and artists. Many artists' works are influenced to varying degrees by the Fluxus legacy, but Smith sees the time and place in which an artist became involved in the movement as critical. Smith references himself as a case in point.

"For me, Fluxus is a movement aimed at reconnecting people to art, but it is also an historical movement during which established Fluxus artists lived and worked, and that is a period that I am separate from."

According to Smith, the Fluxus movement began in the 1950s. From Nam June Paik's One for Violin Solo (where the performer slowly raises the violin over his or her head and then smashes the instrument) to George Maciunas' Burglary Fluxkit (a small box of numerous found keys), Fluxus had a strong antiart and anticommercial focus, sought to make art part of people's lives, encouraged participation of the audience in the creative work, and valued simplicity over complexity.


Although not universally defined, Fluxus was an international group of artists, writers, musicians and performers who explored new forms of art, making and creating what is now often referred to as intermedia (intersections of differing media) that stressed a commonness and simplicity of materials for maximal effect, similar to haiku poetry. In addition to its existence as a historical group, Fluxus also is a philosophy and a way of thinking that is deeply engaged in the importance of play as a creative process and mechanism, an approach Smith has referred to as "being serious about not being serious."

Perhaps most important, Fluxus is an attitude that Smith's work embraces. At the heart of any Fluxus work and at the heart of Smith's work is the all-important seminal concept: the seed idea or question that forms the foundation for the artistic expression.

"My connection with Fluxus lies in the idea that a work starts with a concept or an idea, not with a particular medium," says Smith, whose Fluxus tendencies were seen most recently at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, Video Space in Raleigh, N.C., and the Artists' Book Archive at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

A Semblance of Resemblance: Art and the Nature of the Image, an exhibition by Smith, Alan Stubbs and Andy Hurtt, is on display through Aug. 3 in Lord Hall on campus.

"Once you have identified the concept, you find whatever media or material that seems most appropriate for the work. Fluxus tends to include a lot of humor and play, which is often part of my work, as well. The core of my work is in using art to investigate art itself, to get at how art affects our thinking, our culture and our values."


A professional artist since the mid-1980s and a UMaine faculty member since 1991, Smith has built an extensive and strikingly diverse body of work that examines political, social and personal issues with challenging insights and a uniquely descriptive aesthetic.

His work has been included in more than 60 national and international exhibitions.

"Whatever medium I choose to work in, the art itself is about the idea. What ideas are worth exploring? What questions are worth asking? I want people to think about what I explore or present in my work. I don't offer answers. I don't want to. I want people to think."

Smith's desire to "get people to think" is a common theme that links his varied pursuits as artist, teacher and UMaine New Media Department chair. It is, perhaps, the source of his energy and enthusiasm, as well.

After wrapping up a spring show at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Smith headed across the Atlantic this past May, playing yet another role in Copenhagen as the co-organizer of an international conference on Events and Event Structures at the Royal Danish Academy of Art.

In the classroom or around the world, the exploration of ideas and the challenges they pose are the moving forces behind Smith and his art.

"Art ultimately is not about me gluing two things together, it's about me asking a question," says Smith. "The viewer then thinks about an answer, and it is in that exchange where the art resides."

by Margaret Nagle
July-August, 2007

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