The Grand Synthesizer

Gordon Smith and the Tradition of Painting

If Gordon Smith is not the oldest working artist in Canada, he is certainly the most driven. On this early summer afternoon, a week away from his 95th birthday, he is in his West Vancouver studio painting—just as he is every day of his life. Sitting now in a wheelchair, and with the help of one of his assistants, Dallie Laurente, he has just blocked out the forms for a big, expressive new canvas, a patch of West Coast landscape, both general and particular. As if viewed from above, it depicts a portion of rocky beach covered with detritus: an abandoned buoy, a shredded length of rope, scraps of plastic, battered bits of driftwood. Bordered by tangled vegetation, the scene is full of the natural energy and cultural incident that compel Smith’s eye, although he insists that he is giving up representational painting. He repeats that intention three times, like a mantra, and then indicates a crowd of recently completed canvasses, leaning against the far wall. They are big, brushy, American-style abstractions, some in brilliant whites and blues, others in creamy hues lightly streaked with burnt umber and yellow ochre. “I like to be surprised by painting,” he says. “I like ugly paintings—the ones I have to work at looking at.”

Gordon Smith, North Shore #5, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 96 inches. All images courtesy the artist and Equinox Gallery, Vancouver.

Although ugliness does not really apply, Smith recalls looking at JMW Turner’s art while on sabbatical in England in 1960, an experience that led, that same year, to the production of one of the finest paintings of his career, Nancledra. An atmospheric composition of smudgy forms and scumbled hues, it is vaguely suggestive of a hillock on a beach or perhaps the prow of a boat emerging from a sand-coloured fog. And indeed, there is a Turneresque quality to the new monochromatic works in Smith’s studio, the sense again of sunlight filtered through clouds or mist. In their all-over abstraction, however, no form is evoked, no wedges of colour can be assembled into an image. Smith has slopped up his brushwork and dirtied down his pigments, undermining our inclination to lock him into the lyrical, landscape-based abstraction with which he has—for so long—been associated. Still, whether his paintings take off from the landscape subject or originate in pure abstraction, Smith remains the leading proponent of West Coast Modernism. His long life has simply reinforced his position, as have his conviction and accomplishment. And although he has created work of considerable technical and formal skill in an array of mediums and disciplines, including printmaking, sculpture, collage, assemblage and photography, he is most strongly identified as a painter.

Gordon Smith, Untitled (42), 2013, acrylic on photographic paper, 18 x 12 inches.

Most of the new works in Smith’s studio are earmarked for an exhibition at the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver this fall. (The success of this event is something of a fait accompli: Smith’s shows repeatedly sell out.) Also due this fall: a scholarly monograph, co-produced by Equinox and Black Dog Publishing in London, England, titled Gordon Smith: Don’t Look Back, with an illustrious list of contributors: Ian Thom, Ian Wallace, Roald Nasgaard, Daina Augaitis and Gordon Smith. The new book promises to pick up where Gordon Smith: The Act of Painting left off in 1997. That handsome publication accompanied Smith’s retrospective exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Ian Thom’s essay, particularly, stands as the most comprehensive and scholarly investigation of Smith’s work to date. Thom’s observations and analyses are hung on a detailed biographical framework, one that comprehends Smith’s birth in England in 1919, his early exposure to the great museums and galleries of London, his immigration to Canada with his mother and brother in 1933, his enrolment at the Winnipeg School of Art in 1937, his brief tenure as a commercial artist (drawing men’s long underwear for the Eaton’s catalogue for $4 a week), his travel by bus to San Francisco in 1939 and exposure there to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and other mind-expanding examples of modernist art, his marriage to social worker Marion Fleming in 1941, and his subsequent military posting overseas.

To continue reading Robin Laurence’s interview with Gordon Smith, order Issue 131 or subscribe.

Robin Laurence is a Vancouver-based writer, curator and Contributing Editor to Border Crossings.

Volume 33, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #131, published September 2014.

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