By Ana Morgenstern
When Danielle Smith was very young she became aware that appearances and differences in skin tone matter. Growing up in a suburb of Monterrey California, she understood from an early age she was different. That time taught her appearances matter and she has carried those messages. It wasn’t until she came to D.C. for grad school that she started to understand the weight of her identity in her own life and in the spaces she inhabits. The distance and new environment provided her the freedom to explore that identity and express it armed with a canvas a sense of self that is the core of her work. “Being here has given me a lot of courage, it has given me a lot of authority,” she asserts. It is indeed, courageous work as she even poses herself for a lot of it, showing an intimate portrayal of both the good and the bad parts of the self.
Danielle describes her own identity generally as “being a woman of color, generally.” It sounds simple, but as she unpacks the concept, you start to get an insight as to how her work displays an exploration of identity as a self-reflection and as an experiential description of how her body is perceived by others in different spaces and different places. The relational aspect of her work is what makes it approachable and awakes the viewer’s imagination. One of her paintings shows her in a very regal pose, looking up and defiant, fan in hand and elegant attire on; the backdrop is a cheap lamp and a simple living room. This is the high and low contrasts she likes to explore, “I’m really interested in tension.” It is the contradictions that she observes in the world that allow her to question how class, gender and race intersect.
Danielle’s work is autobiographical. Currently on view at the Torpedo Factory, her work can easily command attention. Some of it is rather violent, showing domestic scenes where there is a latent conflict that may be about to erupt. Some of it showcases the type of violence that has been normalized through accepted forms of subtle racism. Her work, she says, can be universally understood not necessarily reflecting one particular culture, but relaying her own message of being made “the other.” When she completed a residency in China she found that people over there captured the essence of her work. “The light-skinned versus dark-skinned thematic appears in other cultures as well,” she says. This may be where she excels, by making her work so distinctly personal, she is able to create a relatable work that is at once unique and universal. “People understand what I put into painting, based on their own experiences,” and the visceral element of how personal this work is may in fact be the element that the viewers take to connect with the work.
Danielle’s paintings also explores structural tensions such as class and gender boundaries. Because class and gender are two important markers of identity, she can expand from her personal observations and move into the fragmented world that the bodies she explores inhabit. Some of this exploration is done through the techniques she chooses to work with. She was traditionally trained as an oil painter, but later on switched to water color she now, “uses the two mediums strategically and combines them.” She uses oil paint as a social construct, since this is the more traditionally upper-class status medium and combines it with water color techniques as the latter has, “more looseness and a kind of fluidity.” Using the two allows her to continue to explore identity even via the techniques itself, making conscious choices to one how the medium itself tells a story.
If you go, expect to be challenged. There are several thematic strands that may capture you, a final one is the exploration of beauty. According to Danielle, there are messages everywhere in our culture that say “prettiest and black is impossible,” so she takes on these messages and expresses how the concept of beauty is played out. “Even within my family I understood that light-skinned was prettier,” she tells me of growing up the second of four sisters, where messages of beauty and approval were not skin deep. You can visit the exhibit and decide for yourself, you can get a preview of it all on her site.