Artist adds elegance to hip-hop


American popular culture has been transformed over the past 20 years by the hip-hop phenomenon. And because pop culture is now the raw material out of which so much of today's high art is made, hip-hop's influence inevitably is showing up in galleries and museums.

Shinique Amie Smith's painting, installation and mixed-media works at the Creative Alliance gallery in Highlandtown are inflected by the aesthetic of hip-hop without in any sense being consumed by it. Her elegant, calligraphic designs are both a tribute to hip-hop's cultural pervasiveness and an expression of her own highly disciplined artistic personality.

Hip-hop was the creation of a generation of disadvantaged inner-city youth who came of age during the 1980s and '90s and who watched their neighborhoods, families and futures fall victim to multiple epidemics of crack cocaine, AIDS, homelessness and the shredding of the social safety net.

Their response was a counter-culture that made a virtue of the harsh conditions of their lives and that proudly asserted their identity. Break-dancing, graffiti, rapping and outrageous fashions were all expressions of rebellion against a society that had marginalized millions of urban young people.

Nearly all Smith's pieces refer to the whimsical, improvised mark-making of urban graffiti. Many of her works quote phrases or even whole songs from popular rap recordings.

But unlike earlier artists such as Keith Haring or Jean Michel Basquiat, whose graffiti-inspired works deliberately evoked the raw, untutored immediacy of outsider art, Smith's graceful lines reflect her study of the ancient art of Chinese calligraphy. The meandering, abstract patterns she constructs have the unforced elegance of a Brice Marden canvas.

Though the paintings can be appreciated as pure abstractions, they also can be read as mandalas, the ritualistic, geometric designs symbolizing the universe that are used by Hindus and Buddhists as aids to meditation.

Many of her works also exploit the repetition of a single word or phrase, functioning as a kind of visual mantra, a sacred verbal formula believed to possess magical curative and restorative powers. (A concurrent exhibit of Smith's work at Maryland General Hospital is part of the hospital's innovative art and healing project.)

Smith employs the motif of urban graffiti in a surprisingly varied range of works, from fabric sculpture to installation to video. Memory Cloth, for example, is a densely patterned abstract confection created out of bleach and ballpoint pen on denim. Verge Converge, by contrast, is a sculptural installation made out of dozens of yards of thin vinyl and paper strips, both colored with inks and acrylic paint. And Meditations is a mixed-media installation of hundreds of small, casual drawings arranged in a grid pattern.

This is a show whose unpretentious materials and presentation belie its subtle beauty and considerable conceptual heft. The show runs through Sept. 28. The Creative Alliance is at 413 S. Conkling St. Hours are Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call: 410-276-1651.

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