A profile of Montgomery Perry Smith
By Nick Naber
Without fail it’s always raining when I do a studio visit in Bushwick, and I always choose to walk to my destination. Bad choices abound. As I walk up to Montgomery’s building, I see a garage door open just a bit, and I spy a dark black flower. It’s gotta be his studio right? I poke my head under the door and woot a, “heya!” Not only is it raining but it’s one of those sticky gross NYC August days, I’m a sweaty mess. Montgomery invites me into his studio, where we chit chat a bit while I take in all the work around the space. There are a few works in process, and a few that are complete.
We stand downstairs for awhile and get to know one another a little. Montgomery points out a work that is in process on the wall. A bunch of rope that has been dip painted white, that he intends to cut off on the top to expose their inner workings. He also shows me his collection of alligator teeth, that were gifted to him by his dad a few years back. They are now making their way into a sculpture that is in the works on the table. We spend a few more minutes down in the garage studio before we head up to his apartment.
As we come into the apartment, Montgomery’s larger chain-based works are hanging from the ceiling framing the lofted bedroom. He turns on the AC and shows me a sort of quilt/fabric piece he’s been working on. He intends to finish this work soon; it’s meant to be hung in a space so that you can move around it. He has done a lot of hand work on the front, and dyed fabric that is overlaid. Montgomery tells me he’s planning to cut out certain sections so that the viewer can see the painted and dyed underside.
Most of his work has these various layers, both physically and metaphorically. We sit down and discuss his process in more depth. I first saw Montgomery’s work in a group exhibition at Mrs. gallery in Maspeth. His sculpture you will never love me again lead you into the gallery. The chain was hung throughout the front space, making me wonder, “what is this?” and taking the time to let it unveil itself.
There is a specific quality to Montgomery’s work. At times it’s playful and fun, other times it is sinister. This dichotomy is ever present in the work. The next time I saw his work was at the FIAR exhibition at The Center in the Village. Here he showed his fleshlights. These canisters held intricate detailed cut paper in their interior, with a wool felted exterior. Again, a strange difference, an object typically used for self sexual gratification repurposed into a heavily detailed asexual diorama.
We get to talking about Montgomery’s path into the work he is making. He is a graduate of SAIC and started out thinking he wanted to be a fashion designer. He was attracted to the program because of Nick Cave, but after some time decided that he was more compelled by the construction of garments, rather than the finished project. This led him to enter the fiber and material studies department, while still holding onto the various techniques he’d acquired in the foundation courses in the fashion department.
After school he stayed in Chicago for some time. While there he began to hone in on his specific language, and understanding of the materials he uses. We talked a lot about his materials. As I mentioned earlier his dad gifted him some awesome alligator teeth, it seems to be a running theme for Montgomery, people giving him stuff. It begins to accumulate and after a time some of the gifted materials end up in his work. While living in Chicago he was a regular at JoAnn Fabrics. One of the only places he was able to acquire large yardage of odd fabrics. Now that he’s moved to NYC he orders his fabrics online, the fabric in the garment district is a little more fancy than the stuff he wants to use. Smith also sources many of his materials from Halloween stores, prop shops, and various other stores that sell cheap goods.
His use of props is really strange, but also makes a lot of sense. I like this push and pull. It’s most evident when there is use of chains, or leather materials both associated closely to S&M culture. Montgomery negates that quick interpretation by spray painting them neutral pinks or pastel colors. Also, using plastic chains creates yet another removal from it’s intended purpose. The work becomes almost playful. Many of his sculptures can be installed in various ways, also creating different interactions and interpretations based on their surroundings.
Early on his titles alluded specifically to gay sex, or gay culture. He’s now titling work in a more poetic and less esoteric way. I wanted to know more about how he sees the viewer, in regard to the specific gay references in his work. He told me that many times people see the work as pretty objects, and maybe don’t hit on the gay content at all. He’s cool with that. His parents have one of his fleshlights, and he told me he’s never sat down with his parents and had the discussion as to what a flashlight is. He told me another anecdote about being at FIAR and a visiting artist not understanding that he was saying fleshlight not flashlight and explaining to her what a fleshlight is and used for. A comical interaction, I’m sure.
It’s cool to be in his apartment, surrounded by his work. There is a whip on the wall behind me, made of pleather that he used in a performance work. This led me to ask him about his alter ego drag personality Patti Spliff. I wanted to know if there was a crossover between his drag persona and his artwork, if he sees her as an extension of what he does in the studio. In a lot of ways, she wasn’t intended to be part of his artistic practice, but a way for Smith to do other kinds of work. He’s able to make fashion drawings as Patti, she’s an artist in her own right. As time has gone on, he feels like there is a bit of seepage between his drag persona and his studio. After some time, the wigs have to be retired, they begin to get ratty and smell of cigarettes. He’d like to figure out a way to incorporate these retired wigs into his work.
This brings us to the idea of pageantry in his work. Again, being the recovering Catholic I have to ask him, if he’s one too. His answer is surprising as hell. He was raised Methodist but went to a Catholic School as a tyke. Montgomery tells me a story about going to mass but not being able to really partake in mass in its entirety because he wasn’t Catholic. He would bring paper with him and sketch the stained-glass windows. Focusing on the many facets and details. Over time his parents saw his drawings and knew their son was going to be artistic. Smith also relays that those masses had tons of pageantry, robes, incense, etc. all the excess the Catholics are known for. It had a definite impact on his work.
As we wind down our visit, we get into the nitty gritty of his typical studio day and working process. Montgomery always has a few pieces going at the same time. He says that he needs to take breaks from certain works, so it helps to have a few things happening at once. The work is intricate and intense, I can only imagine how bad his fingers hurt and how cross eyed he is at the end of a day in the studio. His attention to detail and the playfulness in his work are inviting and disturbing at the same time. The back and forth in his work reveals a lot about his process and his sense of humor, something that adds a lot to an experience of his work!