STORIES from Artists: Phillip K. Smith III
By Abdi Nazemian
With every newsletter, FAM wants to shine a light on an artist who is grappling with HIV / AIDS in their work. We’ll be asking similar questions, and getting very different answers.
For this installment in our STORIES From Artists series, we’re featuring American artist Phillip K. Smith III, who uses light as a medium to create optically shifting sculptures and site-specific installations.
Smith’s Parallel Perpendicular, a series of five freestanding reflective and color-based volumes, was recently installed in the re-designed West Hollywood Park, not far from where STORIES: The AIDS Monument will be located. He is the artist for the upcoming Palm Springs AIDS Memorial Sculpture.
Trained as an artist and an architect at Rhode Island School of Design, Smith incorporates site-specificity of architecture to create immersive viewing experiences.
Other projects include The Circle of Land and Sky (2017), part of the inaugural Desert X; Open Sky (2018), commissioned by Scandinavian fashion house COS for Italy’s Salone del Mobile; Detroit Skybridge (2018), a 100-foot-long LED installation commissioned as part of Detroit’s revitalization effort; and Three Half Lozenges, a permanent acquisition activating three two-story high windows on the 1920 façade of the Newark Museum of Art.
Smith has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Toledo Art Museum, Laguna Art Museum, Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, and the Palm Springs Art Museum. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Toledo Museum of Art, Palm Springs Art Museum, Denver Art Museum, and Newark Museum of Art, and has been featured in hundreds of print and online publications, including Architectural Digest, artnet, ARTnews, Forbes, The Guardian, and Los Angeles Times, among others.
Abdi: When was the first time you heard about HIV/AIDS?
Phillip K. Smith III: Probably around 1984-85 when I was in elementary school.
Abdi: Tell us about your concepts behind the Palm Springs AIDS Memorial Sculpture?
PKS: The Palm Springs AIDS Memorial Sculpture is intended to be a touchstone in the community. It is an artwork that is meant to be tactile — encouraging touch to facilitate connection and engagement. AIDS is about people and the artwork has been scaled to be at the human scale. The circular, torus shape inspires a connected, round, corner-less form that provides space for the community and the individual across its surface.
The community “face,” composed of a series of varied concentric carved circles that are smooth, flat, angular, matte, satin, and gloss, evokes the quilt of humanity that is touched by AIDS. Extending across this varied topography is a series of precise, matte, carved lines representing the “aberration” in the community fabric that has bonded us together.
The “individual” face is conceived as a series of smooth undulating “fins”, like water lifting. These fins are a metaphor for grief, love, hope, and time. The form of the artwork itself has a concave and convex flex to it as the community face seems to outstretch and envelope the viewer, while the individual face seems to extend outward at the center towards the viewer.
The opening at the center is at eye level and allows a view through – a connection, a sense of hope, a view beyond what is directly in front of you. Most importantly, it serves as the connective surface that bonds the community and the individual together. It will be a natural place to put one’s hand, acknowledging one’s role in grief, hope, love, and community.
It is my hope that this sculpture serves as a touchstone in the community for all people needing a space for calm, quiet, understanding, introspection, and hope.
Abdi: What is your greatest challenge working on the Palm Springs AIDS Memorial Sculpture?
PKS: To respect those that have been lost or that have lost loved ones. In a way, this is the highest calling of an artist and the primary function of a memorial. When the Palm Springs AIDS Memorial Task Force approached me about creating this work, it weighed heavily on me, as I had never taken on a project like this before.
Memorials can be a difficult endeavor. Most examples of memorials are linked to a specific point in time and, as a result, often lose their sense of relevance as time passes and new generations come along. For the Palm Springs AIDS Memorial Sculpture, it was very important for me to create a timeless work that would have relevance now and in the future.
At its core, the Memorial Sculpture is about unity, hope, healing, and dealing with grief – elements that are crucial in all of our lives. At the same time, I wanted to create an iconic sculpture that engages with the light of the desert and that inspires introspection and curiosity about the emotions, concepts, and realities of the Memorial Sculpture.
In service to this idea of timelessness, there are no names or carved titles present on the Memorial Sculpture. Rather, a small plaque nearby identifies the Memorial Sculpture and a QR code links people to information about the artwork, how to get tested, local support organizations, the National AIDS Memorial, etc. Rather than being etched in stone, this information can be constantly updated and curated.
Abdi: What is your favorite work of art that deals with HIV / AIDS?
PKS: The AIDS Memorial Quilt – because it was a work that expressed the personal stories of the individual and the community equally in a singular, direct, bold, grassroots gesture. Most importantly, the Quilt evidenced the scale of the epidemic. Also, touring sections of the Quilt was an amazing idea that physically connected the world via an artwork that most people had only seen through photography.
Abdi: What do you think the role of art is during a public health crisis?
PKS: I think the role of art during a public health crisis is the same as any time: to provide joy, mystery, healing, conversation, and hope.
Abdi: How have you been affected by HIV/AIDS?
PKS: I have so many close friends that either have HIV/AIDS or their partners do or their friends or family do. While HIV/AIDS certainly affects singular individuals, ultimately, it affects AND creates a community of people. And that community, whether we directly feel it or not, is absolutely connected and united across the globe. And that unity should provide comfort that we’re not alone and that we are undeniably linked by our compassion and love for each other, no matter what.