As a painter, Josh Smith can be an infuriating contradiction in terms. He is a passionate cynic, an artist who degrades and celebrates his medium through the relentless yet fervent repetition of a selected motif. Mr. Smith tends to work fast and a trifle sloppily, until a certain image becomes second nature, a template. This automatism opens the door to incessant variations in brushwork, background and, above all, color — as well as our consideration of same.
With “Emo Jungle,” at David Zwirner, Mr. Smith has ascended to a “Big Four” gallery (Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and Pace are the others) with a blowout of nearly 110 paintings spread through three enormous spaces. The best are the large Reaper paintings (too colorful to be called grim), which repeat faceless, genderless figures in hooded cloaks and landscapes of many vibrant colors. Carrying scythes, they sometimes stand among imprints of actual plants, beneath lurid suns and skies. And each image has a distinct border, or three: dots, diamonds, hearts, flowers or curling fringe.
A hallway of postcard-size “Small Reapers” in appealing touristy burned-wood frames leads to the second gallery, which offers red-on-red devils and more, mostly middle-size Reaper paintings. The last space harbors a gaudy frieze of 60 canvases, 4 feet by 3 feet, of stylized turtles, shown on their backs with elongated birdlike heads, a design that recalls the animal designs of Mimbres pottery. The turtles’ shells are painted every which way, as are the areas around them giving new life to the old formalist figure-ground duality. The visual deluge of this terrific if vexatious show meditates on painting as object, performance, psychic communication, pleasure and, yes, salable product.