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Portraits of You
Sei Smith
September 10, 2021 - October 17, 2021

197 E4th Street

Ki Smith Gallery, located in Manhattan’s East Village, today announces the opening of Japanese-American artist Sei Smith’s first solo exhibition since the gallery’s relocation downtown in 2020. Titled Portraits of You and holding residence between September 10 and October 17, this exhibition marks a homecoming for the artist who is a lifelong New Yorker and grew up in the East Village.

Portraits of You is a series of multi-media paintings that reimagines the viewer’s role in the process of the works’ creation. With subjects ranging from the Moldy Peaches’ Adam Green to a local five-year-old child, Smith composes figureless “portraits” featuring only the imagined background each individual envisions in a painting of themselves. Smith then obscures each work with layers of tonal acrylic paint and his signature, iridescent film to create a dreamy, reflective effect: the viewer’s own image appears within the frame, allowing whoever looks at these works to inhabit the world of the portraits’ subject.

Artist Sei Smith said: “Portraits of You is based on centering the viewer in the creation of the art. These works cannot exist without an audience, and maybe when people see themselves within the reflective surface, they think of themselves as the subject of the painting. While each piece was inspired by someone else, the point of the viewing experience is to allow others to enter that space, and prompt a beautiful reminder that we are all existing in a world that is made for others.” Each work is a product of a single conversation. Either in person or on the phone, Smith takes notes as his subject describes their ideal portrait background, gathering details and references as the image begins to take shape in his mind. The resulting compositions are as varied in both form and content as the subjects themselves: a mid-century modern interior in the color pallet of Alex Katz, a Victorian bookcase showcasing a collection of cherished tchotchkes, a surrealist reference to “Axis Bold as Love” Jimi Hendrix album cover art, led by Big Bird and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Portraits of You is a celebration of uniqueness and subjectivity, and an invitation to explore the meaning of individuality and ownership in the age of the social image.

Smith records every stage of the process, first by hand-writing notes from the initial conversation with his subjects and then photographing every stage of the work to create animations of its development. The artist preserves all of these materials in a folio that can be found adhered to the back of each work, only accessible once the work is purchased. The works remain unfinished until the moment they are purchased, when Smith renames it to incorporate the name of the buyer, turning the sale into an integral part of the creative concept and creating a larger artistic statement about how Portraits of You can only be completed as a fully consumed object.

Gallerist Ki Smith said: “I am humbled to be showing my brother’s work at our East Village gallery. The last time we put up an exhibition of portraits in the neighborhood, I think we were about 7 or 8 years old, and it was in the hallway leading to our bedroom.”

Now a legendary artist-dealer duo, the Smith brothers have been a fixture on the New York City art scene since 2012 when Sei and Ki co-founded Apostrophe NYC, a Bushwick-based gallery and curatorial experiment. They gained notoriety for pop-up guerilla exhibitions at MoMA PS1, a Brooklyn subway station, and the stairwell of the Whitney Museum, which earned the brothers a lifetime ban. Since then, Smith has gone on to show work nationally and internationally and continues to focus on reflection, light, and atmospheric interaction. Smith’s last solo exhibition at Ki Smith Gallery, titled Reflections 2, took place in February 2019 at the gallery’s prior location in Harlem and went on to exhibit at BAR4000 in Chicago.

-Molly Levine

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