Gordon Smith: The Black Paintings
October 21, 2017 to February 4, 2018
Vancouver Art Gallery
750 Hornby Street
Vancouver, BC V6Z 2H7
By KAREN MOE, JAN. 2018
Despite the chronology of years lived, the act of remembering is never linear. Even when we try to recount events in the order of "this happened and then that," our minds will inevitably drift off track. Key events can be touchstones that morph into related essences, which may not seem to have anything literal to do with what spurred their surfacing. The act of remembering jumps from this recollection to that—it can be full of surprises.
Gordon Smith’s Black Paintings are representations of remembering. They are alive with the comings and goings of emotions and events that return when we allow ourselves to detach from the present and fall into the ebb and flow of reverie. The work originated in the artist’s memories of his time serving in the Second World War; however, the paintings go beyond any straightforward autobiography. Gordon Smith’s personal recollections form the emotive bedrock of the work and, in combination with the physicality of paint, colour, collage and the act of creation itself, the artist builds landscapes of memory.
The number 43 appears in many of the paintings. This number refers to 1943, the year during World War Two when the Allies landed on Pachino Beach in Sicily. The twenty-four year old Gordon Smith was one of the Allied soldiers who took part in this invasion, known as "Operation Husky." He suffered a serious leg injury, the physiological effects that he continues to live with today.
Smith’s experiences in the war began to materialize in his paintings in 1990. The artist typically works from nature photographs, inspired by the wilds of the Canadian west coast where he has made his home since the 1950’s, weaving intricate, abstract landscapes from direct representations. In an interview with Vancouver Art Gallery Curator Ian M. Thom, Smith related how he never uses purely representational photographs of scenery; instead, he looks for photographic images that are already abstractions, which he can abstract further into sensorial experiences without any desire to represent the peripheral real. However, unlike the landscape paintings that Smith is best known for, the Black Paintings are the first time the artist has delved into personal experience and memory. Nevertheless, they recall his abstractions of the natural landscape. As Smith remarked, “painting should be a recreation of an experience rather than an illustration of an experience.” The Black Paintings plumb the depths of life remembered, rather than presenting an externalized re-telling.
In some of the paintings, the words "Pachino," "Husky," and the number 43 hover within the layers of acrylic and collage. In “Pachino #9” and “Husky #2,” the words are prompts that have activated the artist’s process of remembering; nevertheless, they are obscured by the textures, colours, and brushstrokes and are more hauntings than references. However, in “Husky #3,” the word is a mustard yellow stencil, the colour’s only appearance in the palette. This linguistic signifier reverberates, as a stamp on a document a soldier would receive upon their deployment. In “War Painting,” the inscription "1943 Husky" floats on the bottom right of the canvas, the place that is conventionally reserved for the authority of an artist’s signature. However, in this painting, any positing in language is being dissolved by the surrounding runs of paint.
Smith’s physical relationship with the act of painting gives him the ability to a build three-dimensional body from a one-dimensional plane. In an interview with The Vancouver Sun’s Kevin Griffin, the artist expressed how painting is like breathing to him and how, at the age of 98, he still paints every day. His art is of his body; the process of creation is an extension of his life. Synonymous to the tactility of flesh, the artist’s praxis is the physical manipulation of the paint rather than being guided by conceptual content. His honed control of colour and lifelong connection with the application of paint create abstracted worlds of the psyche. In his senior years, there is an uncanny fusion between the artist and his art.
Especially in the earlier pieces, Smith grounds the work in found objects from his life. He initiated the series with “Pachino #43” in 1993, when he painted on a canvas tarpaulin that he had used in the war forty-five years ago. Army dog tags appear in some of the paintings and the artist has extended this process of using personal materials in “Pachino #11” where he has salvaged a pair of his old pajamas to form the ridges and valleys of the painting’s foundation. Ironically, the humble PJs form the shape of a black hole and benign matter of comfort playfully threatens to suck the viewer into oblivion. Seemingly quotidian objects that the artist has instinctively kept around are the alchemical ingredients that propel us beyond the artist’s biography and into the ebb and flow of our personal existentialism.
In the second half of this body of work, some of the paintings have entered into the mercurial world of absolute abstraction. Having initiated the series with direct, physical objects from his life, the artist is now free to float in the undulations of unfettered recollection. In “PTG #1,” we are immediately drawn to a regal cyan that seems to be perpetually rising out of the depths of black paint; burnt umber floats on the top layer while forest greens descend into military. In “Untitled #2,” lingering daubs of blazing rust form life rafts and two drips, once linear, are now warped by the passing of time. The fire is frozen in its final flicker; the attempts at control begin to bleed into obscurity. Abstracted forms are as wounds or flowers that simultaneously fall into and transcend the darkness of the abyss.
However, the process of remembering is never compartmentalized and, even though the work has been divided into the early paintings and the later ones, the series as a whole does not have a fixed boundary. Found objects and allusive symbols enter into some of the later paintings as well. In “Untitled 2010,” a metal grill has been placed on top of dripping paint. Instead of that seemingly ubiquitous number 43, however, the date 1938 has now appeared; a saved scrap from a wartime newspaper has been partially buried, the word ‘War’ obliterated in its tearing while the abstract master ‘Time’ guides a resurgence of the artist’s anamnestic autobiography. It is as though, in this untitled visual memoir, the artist has momentarily come up for air and given himself a rudimentary object of control to hold onto, but is always about to be overcome by the fluid passing of time. This found object could be from Smith’s basement or from an anonymous scrapyard—the artist’s personal groundings now overlap with anyone’s.
When we enter the exhibition of the Black Paintings at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the last thing we think of is joy. Indeed, black is rarely a colour that is associated with levity. However, the personal experiences upon which the Black Paintings are built are the most vivid memories of the artist’s life. Despite his injury and the inevitable horrors of war, Smith finds beauty in his military experience. In his war memoir A Time Remembered, Smith writes, “I would think what a great adventure it was,” and reminisces about a group of special friends whose relationships have long outlived their wartime origins. For Smith, an experience that could be perceived from the outside as a one-dimensional Hell is filled, like his painted recreations, with multiple textures of joy and loss.
The work that best encapsulates this mix of light and dark is the 2016 painting “43: A Time Remembered.” The palette is a burst of joy that verges on the romanticism of Monet’s water lilies. However, Smith’s euphoria of purples, magentas, oranges and greens do not float upon a soothing perfection of blue or a dreamy swoon of the reflected world: this fleeting topography has risen from the oblivion inherent in the absent colour black. An elongated padlock is in tune with the drips of dissolving islands; raised textures attempt to hold fast and the number 43 has surfaced once again, front and center, but the hand writing is now wobbly, a dissonant salute to Monet with its distorted reflection. In “A Time Remembered,” vitality is ethereal as it momentarily colours the void. Reaching out into the geography of the psyche, Gordon Smith’s Black Paintings keep time with the torrent and pools of a mountain creek—memories surface, recede and rise once again, tenuous and piercing. WM
Karen Moe is an art critic, visual and performance artist, author and feminist activist. Her work focuses on systemic violence in patriarchy: be it gender, race, the environment or speciesism. Her art criticism has been published internationally in magazines, anthologies and artist catalogues in English and Spanish and she has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico. She is the founder of the Vigilance Fierce Feminisms Magazine and the blog The Logical Feminist. She is the author of Victim: A Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor 2022. Karen lives in Mexico City and British Columbia, Canada.
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