In 1971, when she was a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, Barbara T. Smith created Holy Squash Ceremony, a durational performance for the campus art gallery that extended to an adjacent fountain pool. The inspiration for the piece was a dinner party she had recently hosted, conceived as a way to bring together her new art friends and older acquaintances she had known during her previous life as a 1950s housewife. On the menu for her special evening was a dish she made from the flesh of a large Hubbard squash, which she served in its hollowed-out husk. She felt that the whole meal was wonderful and that the occasion was especially beautiful because it fostered a sense of community. And the more she thought about it, the more she began to see the squash as something “sacred.” Back in the studio, with the cucurbit carcass in tow, she had the idea to commemorate the event and the sense of transformation she had experienced.
Smith used the original gourd husk as a mold to make the cast-resin sculpture Holy Squash, 1971, a 150-pound ovoid (some might call it “womb-like”), slightly purple and translucent, that she left rough and unpolished. She deemed it a reverential subject worthy of worship and planned a consecration performance for it. After a very casual “baptism” in a fountain pool—snippets of which were filmed—the work was installed in the gallery. Over the course of eight days, Smith and a group of participants celebrated a “mass” by eating lots of cooked squash, petting their newly sanctified relic, dancing rhythmically around it, and who knows what else. Sporadic video documentation gives us random access to the unstructured, improvised, and ludic qualities of this observance. Much later, the artist acknowledged that, even though it was all a bit funny, the ceremonial aspect of the performance was authentic and that, in fact, it became a kind of religion for her.
Holy Squash Ceremony occurred early in Smith’s career, but a commitment to spiritual growth through art was already paramount. Metaphysical transformation—via food, nurturing, and the healing aspect of ritual—continued to be a core principle of her practice even as her interests, grounded in personal experience, expanded to include tantric energy, female desire, and sexuality. Whether conjuring the forces of nature or orchestrating an interaction between the body and the universe, she conducted her durational performances with solemnity and formality. For her, as she once put it, “the ceremonial moment” wasn’t about theater; it was about “going to the source of things where you have no idea what’s going to happen.”
In “Holy Squash,” Smith’s third exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery, the aforementioned video accompanied an installation featuring the eponymous resin vegetable, its decorated reliquary, and other artifacts, including dried flowers, an altar, and a scepter. In addition, bags of production materials containing wadded-up packing and dusty plastic drop cloths, as well as a stack of damaged sheets of Styrofoam, are offered, perhaps as evidence of the processes that brought the relic into being. None of it is especially visually captivating, but that’s clearly beside the point. These vintage items, with all their rawness and imperfections, have the power to stimulate our curiosity about their particular pasts and their roles in the artist’s quest for enlightenment. Like the contents of a time capsule, they send us hurtling back into the ur-history of an art culture that flowered in the 1960s and ’70s in Southern California, when experimental poststudio practices, New Age theology, and the desire to be one with nature ushered in a bounty of Aquarian awakenings. A new era of creativity and freedom was unfolding, and Smith was one of its pioneers.
It must have been hard to conjure up an authentic spiritual experience in a pristine white-walled gallery. Fifty years later, that process is an even more difficult proposition. Smith’s work is currently being collected, archived, and historicized, as it deserves to be. Yet mainstream art dialogue was never her thing. She was much more concerned with her own internal growth and the search for a sense of wholeness—an elevated level of consciousness. That’s the feminism that seemingly few want or know what to do with. But at ninety-one years old, Smith is still tenaciously thinking and making, and her art—strange, funny, smart, and soulful—is part of an extraordinary and difficult legacy that refuses to fade away.