Each One of Us Was Fastened to the Other: Josh Smith and Vanessa Woods
Vanessa Woods, Each One of Us Was Fastened to the Other, 2020. 49 panel unique collage from original photographs, 44 x 44 inches. © Vanessa Woods, courtesy the artist.
Whether nuclear or chosen, nearly everyone takes pictures of their families. All my friends, especially those with toddlers and smartphones, can attest to that reality. For an artist undertaking such a universal subject, the challenge is to make intimate pictures that speak in compelling ways to others—those with no direct relationship to the people or places portrayed. The work must transcend the specificity of your family, describing relationships in a way that many can recognize, while also being well-executed, powerful, and multifaceted. In Each One of Us Was Fastened to the Other at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, CA, husband-and-wife artists Josh Smith and Vanessa Woods strive to do just that. Though their approaches to a shared experience are divergent, they both foreground their projects in the often experienced, but infrequently discussed tensions and paradoxes of being a parent and raising children.
Josh Smith and Vanessa Woods, Each One of Us Was Fastened to the Other, January 8–February 12, 2022 (installation view). Center
for Photographic Art, Carmel, CA. Photograph by John Janca.
Since becoming pregnant with their first child in 2012, Smith and Woods have been making work involving one another and their three children. Their processes have evolved over this time—not only in terms of their own growth as artists, but also in terms of their relationships to their growing children and one another. This exhibition represents new directions and experimentation for both artists and demonstrates, especially in recent years, how their children have become active participants and collaborators. (To any envious parent: mild bribery is involved in cajoling their subjects before the camera or into a tub of plaster, both of which involve a stillness and cooperation I don’t associate with young kids).
Josh Smith, from the series The First Years, 2014. Gelatin silver print, 7 ¾ x 12 inches. © Josh Smith, courtesy the artist.
Historically, Woods’s collage-based works have relied on found source materials. Here, she only uses only her own photographs of her family and self as fodder, printing, cutting, scaling, and reassembling these pictures; the process itself becomes a proxy for her experience of motherhood. “When I make collages,” Woods explained to me, “the original image is decontextualized through the act of cutting, its meaning re-contextualized through new associations. In many ways, this is like parenthood, where the process of becoming a parent erases the pre-parent identity and reassigns it as something else.” In some instances, she creates more layers by mounting printed photographs to foam core and rephotographing them amidst the same bodies. Boundaries blur further through mirrors used to distort through reflection and plaster-cast body parts that distort by mimicking reality. Even with careful examination, it feels futile to tease apart the order and number of individual photographs and props in a work like Assembling (2021). Woods’s larger-scale collages—made possible by using her own source material—viscerally engage the viewer as the depicted bodies approach life-size. The exhibition’s titular piece is a seven-by-seven grid of small-scale, square collages that operate as both a singular composition and a tumbling sequence of foliage, arms, legs, torsos, and breasts that simultaneously suggest intimacy and claustrophobia; bodies appear so intertwined, they are practically indistinguishable.
Vanessa Woods, Yours/Mine, 2022. Two gelatin silver prints, 19 x 30 inches. © Vanessa Woods, courtesy the artist.
I will not attempt to speak of what I cannot begin to know; I am the last childless woman among my friends. But, for me, Smith and Woods translate their unembellished range of emotions as parents with curiosity, a sense of continual discovery and rediscovery. Every moment of tenderness, awe, and gratitude is tinged with uncertainty, about who these children will become, but also who the two artist-parents will become through this experience. What will be gained, and what will be lost?