The Tumult of Landscape: Michael Smith’s Painted World

I am standing on the threshold of a vast aqueous space. The horizon line between sea and sky is smudged with off-white and mauve wisps of smoke. That fluid line also stands for the ground plane of representation itself, the line that holds me taut between seeing and seen. In other words, it’s a sort of spirit level for my presence here on the precipice. Below that line, there is a furious roiling in the depths, a sense of some seismic event happening deep beneath the thick crust of the waters. Further up, an indeterminate shape, an object in the midst of ongoing disintegration, seems to heave slowly in and out of focus on the line. Shifting back and forth between abstraction and representation, that shape is hard to identify at first. It might be a warship foundering there: torpedoed, top-heavy, taking on water all the while, ready to plunge. One thing is sure. The dark waters have a powerful undertow. That hazy object is on its way into the deeps. From my position, I feel as though I am poised uneasily on a ridge above the ocean, experiencing a sort of existential vertigo. But I am not standing on a cliff at ocean’s edge. I’m in Michael Smith’s studio, in front of a painting appropriately titled Undertow, measuring 80 inches high by 108 inches wide. Smith’s work has been regularly shown across Canada; a number of large sea and fire canvases were exhibited to critical acclaim at Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto in 2008. Smith will also show new works at Trépanier Baer in Calgary later this year.

Michael Smith came to Canada from the uk in 1978 and has become this country’s painter of tumult, of figural and often violent extremity: chaos in the air, spontaneous combustion on the ground. The artist sees landscape painting not as a paradigm for place but as a metaphor for the impossible claim of a sense of belonging to any particular place. He draws on personal memories of the English landscape, quotations from history painting and photographs of war from documentary sources. For example, he based several recent paintings on Timothy O’Sullivan’s Civil War photographs of the killing grounds at Gettysburg.

In contrast with other painters who mine the landscape, Smith’s painting can be interpreted as enactment; the performative aspect of his work is traceable to his beginnings. This helps explain the magnetic pull the paintings exert on his viewers, enfolding them and encouraging them to step inside the work. For Michael Smith, painting is not a way of finding himself–but of progressively losing his own way. He may risk enchantment, but it pays off. He has often said to me that landscape is, for him, a subject riddled with shadows …

Volume 28, Number 3: Paint

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #111, published August 2009.

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