Printmaker Lo Smith had a formative experience on an art-school elevator.
"I ran into a hijabi woman on an elevator who was silently crying," Smith says. "This big, white professor man was trying to make small talk about the weather with me. Like, we're pretending that this person who's obviously crying next to me doesn't exist."
The interaction led Smith to a question that informs several works in their new show, Linoleum Flowers: "How do we protect and defend each other's humanity in this space where all of us are fading in and out constantly?"
The resulting series is called Split (Fade), which is on display at Ori Gallery on North Mississippi Avenue. In the two Split (Fade) pieces in the show, Smith screenprinted a collage of the phrase "All you alright?" in bubbly, outlined letters. On the lower half of the cotton rag paper, there's a mirror image of the collage in thick, geometric letters that are chopped up by white lines. In the second piece of the series, the letters look they've been run over with an eraser, faded to the point where they're just a phantom of the original phrase.
Smith's work shares the gallery with that of Nadia Wolff, a fellow student at the Rhode Island School of Design. Wolff's three screenprinted works are deep, layered bursts of royal blue and earthy orange ink that pool and fracture with the intricacy of a topographical map.
Linoleum Flowers is Smith and Wolff's first show together, and only the third at Ori Gallery. When Smith approached Wolff about doing a show at a new gallery on the other side of the country, Wolff wasn't at all fazed. "We had some conversations about blackness and art and of institutional space," says Wolff, on a conference call with Smith. "So I was excited when they came to me with this proposal."
Along with those conversations and Smith's interaction with the woman in the elevator, the eight works in the show were inspired by a class assignment requiring Smith and Wolff to create prints inspired by flowers. That might make Linoleum Flowers sound tangential, and it's certainly a complex show. But the entirety of Linoleum Flowers is tied to that initial question of how to thrive when conventions fail us.
Smith met Ori Gallery co-owners Maya Vivas and Leila Haile through Portland State's Queer Students of Color Conference years before the gallery was founded. Not long after Ori opened in January, Haile encouraged Smith to submit work for a show. Smith, who is a graduate student, invited Wolff, an undergraduate, to also submit work. "I really want to uplift other students, especially younger students," Smith says. "I feel like a lot of good work is overlooked and left by the wayside. I don't think that was a danger [for Wolff], but that was something I saw happening with younger artists by virtue that they were younger."
It was Smith's idea to make Linoleum Flowers a two-person show, and Wolff selected the eight works to display. Essentially, they co-curated the show. Self-curated exhibits are rare, but in the case of Linoleum Flowers, it's a significant choice. Curators often have more control of a show's narrative than the artists. That's not always a bad thing, but if an artist's work is deeply personal, the curator's point of view, at best, frames the works in the show—and, at worst, stifles it.
"Ori allows so much latitude and longitude," Smith says. "They really want to get an understanding of how the work relates to the show itself, but also the body of work of the artist."
Initially, Smith planned to submit work to the gallery alone, but then they took a printmaking class with Wolff. "When I saw their work, I was like, 'We need to have a talk,'" Smith says. "'I'm applying for a show, and your work is already in conversation with mine.'"
The conversation between Smith and Wolff's work became particularly apparent during a banal class assignment to create prints based on floral arrangements. When Wolff was given the prompt, they decided to work within the given parameters while devising their own definitions. "A lot of time, I'm thinking through how femininity is defined for black femme bodies, especially in a Caribbean context," Wolff says. "My family's Haitian, and I grew up in Miami. I was like, 'OK, cool, black girls are flowers. I can talk about black girls."
Instead of a literal floral arrangement, Wolff created Mythos of Bad Daughters, the largest piece in the Ori Gallery show. Mythos is an abstract portrait of two women with serene facial expressions that arise from a mass of interlocking hands and strings of pearls. The figures are covered in a textural, seemingly endless overlay of burnt oranges and deep blues.
"For me, my identities always inform what I'm making," Wolff says. "It's several layers of abstraction away from the initial prompt. It kind of spoke to the process of working in these spaces, where initially you're given color and form, and in the process of working through that while occupying a certain body, it becomes weighted in different ways."
When Smith saw Mythos in a student art show, they were awestruck. "Just the breadth and depth of skill and detail and manipulation of form," Smith says. "I was like, 'All right, please show with me.'"
Smith's works are just as skillfully emotive. Black Drip is a burst of pink across a sheet of white cotton paper that was created through a combination of finger-painting and methodically dunking the piece in water. Another print of Smith's in the show is equally meditative and chaotic—what would be solid vertical lines of black ink are splattered across the page and eroded by veins of water.
Wolff chose the show's name. It's the most literal reference to the class assignment to create stiff renderings of the natural world. But in the context of Smith and Wolff's work, the phrase seems very much alive.
"Out of this assignment that was sort of objective and flat," Wolff says, "we both made something that was very emotionally charged."
SEE IT: Linoleum Flowers is at Ori Gallery, 4038 N Mississippi Ave., oriartgallery.com. Noon-6 pm Wednesday-Sunday, through June 24.