Whitehot Magazine

Painting with Light: An Interview with Tom Smith

Tom Smith, Airglow, 2017, Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, 84 x 120 inches, courtesy Olsen Gruin Gallery


Tom Smith is a New York-based artist known for his illusionistic style that is, in his words, influenced by digital output. This rising star has received numerous distinctions, including the prestigious Largo das Artes residency, as well as attention from ArtnewsElle Taiwan, and The Creators Project (VICE). Since I've worked closely with Tom over the past five years, I was eager to catch up with him about his latest solo show, “Swimming in My Head,” on view at Olsen Gruin Gallery in the Lower East Side. The exhibition houses one year of painting and marks Tom’s transition from collage work to painting on canvas through silkscreen processes. His signature palette of kaleidoscopic gradients and shapes is enhanced by a new sense of mastery over light and an expanding scale. 

Installation view, courtesy Olsen Gruin Gallery

Lauren Xandra: In the context of an exhibition titled “Swimming in My Head,” I see the works as living proofs of how your art “thinks:” the interplay between your processes of making visual sense of the world around us, and the processes of making art. Your work creates optical illusions, or the effect of viewing a scene through a filter -- what is the conceptual content of this stylistic effect? 

Tom Smith: I think we’re always seeing life through filters, meanings, ideas, and expectations that we have. That’s interesting to me as a painter because we’re visually overstimulated with technology, TV, and advertising. “Swimming in My Head” is meant to express the complex emotional state of our world, in an immersive way. When someone walks up to the paintings I want the real world to disappear behind them. 

LX: This new body of work appears almost as if you were painting with light. Can you tell us about the process of making this series?

TS: I’ve found out through layering small lines of color I can create an effect almost like mixing lighting in theater. For example, small strips of bright red and green appear yellow from a distance instead of brown. Before this show, I’d been making paintings by slicing painted paper into tiny strips, then combining them on panel, which comes out of early color theory studies we did in college while learning about Joseph Albers. [Recently] I started working on canvas so I could make much bigger paintings. Now, instead of cutting and collaging paper, I silkscreen layers of wavy lines on the canvas, which creates an effect of light waves flowing through space.

Installation view, courtesy Olsen Gruin Gallery

LX: How does the language of digital play into your work? 

TS: The term “Resolution” is interesting to me because it refers to the number of pixels in an image, but also to an end result or decision. I like the word, so it ended up in one of the painting titles. Google Dictionary defines a pixel as “a minute area of illumination on a display screen.” I think that’s really beautiful, and we use those terms so often it’s nice to sit and explore what they actually mean.

Installation view, courtesy Olsen Gruin Gallery

LX: In the past couple years, you've exhibited abroad in cities such as Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong and Taipei. How has the art you’ve been exposed to overseas influenced your practice?

TS: Showing in other cities has helped me understand who I am as a New York/American artist. I noticed in Rio that artists focus on subjects, materials and social engagement to explore cultural and political structures. In many South and Central American countries, to be an artist is to be engaged with social development. On the other hand, as an American painter, I think there is a huge amount of pressure to do something individual and with a unique voice. The common American dream is fame, and that crosses over into the art world where the goal is to create art world celebrities. I don’t know what this means to me yet, but it’s bound to show up in my work.

Tom Smith, Blue Resolution, 2017, Acrylic with silkscreen on canvas, 40 x 50 inches, courtesy Olsen Gruin Gallery

LX: Which artists inspire your work, and in what ways?

TS: James Turrell had the greatest influence on me because his work changed my perspective of how color and light seem to stir something sublime in us. As a painter, I love Cecily Brown because I think she’s brave. She makes pictures about whatever she wants, and she’s committed to her own freedom as an artist. WM

“Swimming in My Head” is on view until 8th January 2018 at Olsen Gruin, 30 Orchard Street, New York, NY 10002.

Lauren Xandra

Lauren Xandra is Managing Director of L&X, an arts and luxury marketing firm. Based between London and Zurich, she can be contacted at lauren@lxconsultancy.com. 


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