Gordon Smith and the Art of Picture-Making

The following essay was written for “Gordon Smith: Entanglements,” which was exhibited at Equinox Gallery, Vancouver, from September 8 to October 20, 2012.

A discriminating survey is the most tantalizing and revealing of exhibitions because it tells us much, and promises even more. Entanglements, which includes 60 paintings by the perennially gifted Gordon Smith, is one of those exhibitions; it indicates how much he has achieved in his distinguished career and for how long he has done it. The earliest works are from the late 1950s, when Smith was working through a range of influences including Graham Sutherland, School of Paris painters and Hans Hofmann. Smith wears his influences on his sleeve — then and now — for critics to peck at. He says he is “a thousand painters deep” and from that history he has always been able to take what he needed and leave the rest. He is among the most guileless and generous painters I know and he talks enthusiastically and knowledgably about Manet’s 1880 painting of a single white asparagus in one breath and, in the next, about the sensuous canvases of Cecily Brown. He is still acknowledging his membership in the tribe of painters, and close looking can reveal the presence of any one of a legion of other painters and kinds of painting, from Peter Lanyon and the St. Ives painters in Cornwall, to Per Kirkeby and the CoBrA Group, to a collection of Canadians as different as Emily Carr, Graham Coughtry and Charles Gagnon. But his borrowings, if they’re even that, are mere inhalations; the air he breathes is the air of painting and what he exhales is pure Gordon Smith. The most recent works in Entanglements were completed this year, and they indicate he has lost nothing of his vision and his adeptness. His is an inspiring achievement; at 93 years of age he paints every day with a combination of vigour and clarity that would be admirable in an artist 50 years his junior.

Throughout his career, his subject has been the landscape. At the beginning of the 19th century William Wordsworth wrote, “little we see in Nature that is ours”; into the second decade of the 21st century, everything that Gordon Smith sees in nature is his. He is a visual Antaeus; every time his eyes touch the earth he gains strength. Significantly, the Hercules he is wrestling with is himself. In The Reflective Canvas, a film made in 2008, he said, “I’m full of self doubts about what I do and nothing comes very easily to me.” Neither that struggle nor doubt registers on the canvas. The paintings are as sublime and as elegant as they need to be and when they have troubles, they are arrived at naturally. That is to say, they emerge in, and through, nature.

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

As early as Untitled (Dead Trees) in 1952, he came at the landscape through a rough patchwork of shapes and forms; in S.P.1. from 2010, (and painted 60 years later), the forest has disappeared beneath a blizzard of marks that covers every centimeter of the canvas. Smith is a landscape painter for all seasons. His titles name times of the year in the same way that they situate locations. The most astonishing works are the snow paintings. Smith is easily the finest painter of the range and subtleties of snow that this snowbound country has ever produced. The subject has demanded from him close observation and detailed mark-making. All landscape painters share a common problem; how to find the combination of gestures, marks, colours, textures and forms that convincingly render the landscape they are looking at and hope to approximate. In this regard, Smith’s snow paintings are the white gold standard. The variety of his treatment is unparalleled, from the perfect weight of the snowy boughs in West Vancouver Winter #2 (2008-09), to the forms of Late Winter, Cypress (2010), where the snow in the foreground is less a substance than a structure. It goes from being a natural element to a material with painterly density. It is a felix culpa for a single colour, a fortunate snow fall. There is a visual logic and a progression in the snow paintings in which you can see the forest through the trees. I don’t mean simply that you visually perceive the forest through the trees but that you see the forest because of the trees.

It is interesting to note that he has pushed the palette of the snow paintings into works that read as if they were abstract paintings, where the blizzard of lines is less elemental than painterly; there is the insinuation of entire fields of coloured painting behind the surface. Somewhere in a monumental work like Winterscape I(2007), is the sense that Mark Tobey had contributed a blanket for a lovely coloured biomorphic painting that is resting beneath the surface. In Gordon Smith’s studio, sitting unobtrusively under a Plexi cover, is a circular sculpture made from remnants of nature – branches and reeds and undergrowth – that the artist brought back from his various wanderings into the forests and along the beaches of British Columbia. It is a captivating bundle and weave of lines, which Smith described to Andy Sylvester as, “a portrait of the inside of my head”. The remark is a characteristic deflection and an example of the artist’s irrepressible sense of play. But he is also accurately describing what his art has always done. He says as much in The Reflective Canvas, “I’ve always loved tangles, that crossing over of things” and over the course of his 75 year long career he has made paintings employing that procedure of looping and overlapping, the movement of line into line, texture into texture and colour into colour. Painting is the trace of the inside of his head to the outside world, using nature as the subject of that complicated disentanglement.

As early as 1942 in a watercolour on paper called Sussex Coast, Smith recorded a section of the barbed wire defenses set up against the possibility of invasion by sea. It is a fairly conventional rendering, an example of Smith’s attempts at realism, but the wire is also a bit wild in its twisting and turning and, at various intervals, is decorated with daubs of green, red and lavender that hang on the coiling wire like holiday lights. It shows his fascination with entanglements, as well as a tendency to aestheticize a landscape which had attracted his attention. It is more about painting than replicating and it is a tendency that has become more prevalent over his career. It’s difficult to find a body of work, (especially the Creekside paintings, where the entire surface is an interwoven skein of multiple lines), that doesn’t have areas of linear entanglement. All the Tangle and Water paintings are dense with this kind of tracery but Smith is also inclined to use lines in landscapes where they are not expected.

In this regard, Forest Pond A2 (2005), is an audacious painting. What is immediately noticeable is that there is more substance to the trees reflected in the water than in the actual trees in the forest. The structure of the painting seems to be urging itself towards balance; the reflected bottom half is divided by a diagonal line that forms two triangles. The surface of the triangle on the right side is primarily green; the surface on the left side is the silvery colour of water. But the water half has add-ons; a small flotilla of water lilies appears, as if a whisper of Monet slipped through the water, and hanging down from the left is an interlocking series of irregular and roughly painted branches that assumes the shape of a basket. These twirling lines seem to be self-generated, as if a poltergeist invaded the painting and executed some impish skeining. This addition deliberately messes with the form and balance that the painting hints at, and then eludes. The more you look at its compositional idiosyncrasies and the more you anticipate a pleasing symmetry, the more persuasive is the realization of how Smith has drawn you into nature’s beautiful confusions. This is a highly realistic painting; it simply doesn’t mimic its subject to tell that subject’s truth.

PTG II, 2013, acrylic, collage on canvas, 50 x 65 inches.

Smith is genuinely interested in these confusions because they support what he is seeing when he looks at the landscape. In this sense, he is reflecting the natural shift his painting has undergone in moving from representation to abstraction. It is the record of the painting coming into its own. He has described this trajectory, “as the process and the product taking over the realism”, and certainly in a work like Winter Pond II (2002), you can’t tell exactly where the space of the actual landscape surrenders to the invented space of the reflected painting. This planned confusion is what makes Winter Pond (2002) and North Shore Pond (2011), so bewildering and seductive.

Compositionally, Smith’s works are rarely even in their division because observationally the landscape is never a perfect mirror. Rather, the paintings become fields of shifting space in which land and water, substance and reflection, empty space and form, all move inconspicuously, one into the other. Most often, you can’t determine where one thing ends and the other begins.

In an early landscape Tangled Stream (1954), you can see how the forms and colours that Smith was using in the abstract paintings are already taking on the character of a landscape. The modified green and white shapes in the abstractions from the 1950s function here as the foliage of a tree and a pile of snow. Rather than being form and colour, they become subject and ground. While Smith isn’t interested in rendering depth, the idea of space behind the surface seems to be in his mind’s eye. It is worth asking whether he has ever been an abstract painter. He knows so much about painting that he can speak the language of abstraction, but there always seems to be a natural accent in his articulations. Seen in this light, the wonderful early abstractions included in Entanglements are really landscapes waiting to be born. In Tree (1956), the painting seems to be recomposing itself as a collection of separate forms — rectangles, ovoids, thick lines — that are recognizably a cluster of arranged marks, but even through that transformation, the tree remains inescapably a tree.

If the Snow paintings were an inventory of his mark-making abilities, the Black paintings evidence his resistance to the virtuosic. Seven of these compelling works are included in the exhibition, and they are the most abstract and most personal he has ever made. They are also, significantly, the most hard won. In a recent conversation he told me these paintings, “were harder than anything I have ever done. I spent more time on each of them than on any of my figurative paintings.” It is telling that paintings which show the fewest marks and evidence the least surface activity, are the ones in which he has invested the most emotional and psychic energy. What is equally noteworthy is that he has never been able to let go of the subject; his wartime experience haunts his painterly imagination and he has returned to it, at irregular intervals, over the last 20 years. (Even the making of a single painting can be a lengthy process; the date on Pachino #11 is listed as 2006-10).

W4, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 67 x 70 inches.

Smith eschews conversations that situate his work in a discussion of the autobiographical, and he has little to say about any direct connections between life and art. But in previous interviews with critics and curators, (and most recently with me in July, 2012), he has not been hesitant to talk about the war and the effect it had on him. In the candid memoir of his time in the army and the friends he made there (included in the 2011 Equinox Gallery exhibition catalogue for Black and White), Smith confessed that, “When I am alone, I think of these dear friends and weep, and after all these years the memory is as fresh as ever.” It is well known that Smith was seriously wounded a week after landing on Pachino Beach in Sicily, at the beginning of the allied operation in Italy in 1943. The landing there paralleled the assault on Juno Beach in France, an event in which he lost friends, as he did during and after the landing on Pachino. It was also an event, that in some profound and inexplicable way, was his unraveling. In these poignant memorial paintings, he has found a way to speak about the trauma.

In Pachino #11 (2006), Smith took torn pieces of his own clothing (you can see two sections of the waistband from a pair of boxer shorts) and attached them to the surface of the painting, making the fragments a surrogate for his absent body. The placement of the pieces is revealing; they seem to be arranging themselves in a circle, as if they were part of a Humpty-Dumptied world intent on piecing itself together again. In a startlingly personal inclusion, Smith included his dog tags in Pachino 43 (2009). Their economy of expression (each of the tags reads,“Lieut. G.A. Smith. CE. CDN”) belies the unmistakable and lasting effect being wounded and losing his friends had, and continues to have, on Smith. The painting also includes two military green shapes that float on the canvas like ghostly landing crafts. Finally, Smith has written the number 43 in orange letters, followed by the word, PACHINO, scratched onto the surface.

For Smith, the palette of perception and immediate experience runs a range from white through pastel and bright colours; the palette of memory is a more somber one — browns, dark greens and, especially, black. In these paintings, Smith also allows paint to drip down the surface, as if in the face of memory, he has relinquished the control that has been his signature. The Black paintings are his shadow works and they are among the most powerful he has ever done. Their visceral presence transmits directly to the viewer.

Nowhere is the intensity of his wartime experience more clearly embodied than in Juno II (1990), a painting where Smith pulls out all the memorial and material stops. The surface he paints on is the tarp from the kit bag he had when he landed in Italy in 1943 (it was somehow returned to him a year after he came back to Vancouver, minus the safari bed that had been an original part of the kit). Smith took the bag, removed the leather straps and stretched the material, leaving visible the grommets and stitch marks. He thinks of the painting as a collage and appreciates the comparatively minimal activity on the surface. The canvas functions like a skin, so that any marks and folds on the surface register far more prominently than in any other of Smith’s work. But in Juno II he writes the name of the operation in light grey on grey (he also named a favourite dog after the landing), inscribes the number 2 and fashions a red cross from which paint drips down to the bottom of the composition. There is also a shape in white, its presence barely registering, that looks like a head in profile. In conversation, Smith acknowledged that, “it could be a skull”, a recognition that makes the painting even more personal and underlines a physical, if not a psychic, dismemberment.

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

It is significant to note that in Painting #5 (1994), another in the series of Black paintings, he has written the word “Holoferernes” (an incorrect spelling of the Biblical general who Judith seduces and then beheads). The word here is an emblem of damage done to the body, the language equivalent to the image of the profiled head in Juno II. He also adds a white cross, some stenciled military letters, a vibrant patch of orange and fleshy pink and, finally, a piece of leather collaged to the top of the canvas that he concedes, “might have been taken” from his boot. These objects and references function like talismans that remind him of his experience in the war. In that capacity, they both insulate him from, and re-expose him to, the experience. The most recent of this series, simply called Untitled (2012), may suggest a way out. It reads like a dark forest and it is the only one among the seven Black paintings in which the colours seem to be emerging from under the surface, rather than being applied to it. The drips are more numerous and there is more colour overall, including a rich burgundy, a vibrant blue, hints of lavender and a green that shifts from the military to the painterly. It’s as if the war is in the process of being emptied out into art.

It is important to appreciate that for Smith there is no systematic chronology; each painting is a discrete thing, and not consciously a part of any theoretical or perceptual program. If anything, Smith resists the idea that he is working within a progressive, accumulated logic of picture-making. In our recent conversation, he offered this description of his painting methodology: “I start out by arbitrarily painting; I do a solid colour and then I add more, layer by layer. I destroy one part and then go back. In the process of painting each painting, you discover something new.” This way of working provides a key to understanding why the paintings look the way they do. The layers he refers to, added and then covered over, made and then destroyed, are the material record of his painting. They are the painting’s matter. But the spaces between those layers is where he effects the shifts that allow him to move from passages of representation to passages of abstraction. The passage becomes the painting, (I am using “becomes” in both its ontological and aesthetic sense). They are the painting’s being.

Gordon Smith is fond of quoting Francis Bacon’s observation that painting is a mysterious struggle with chance. But like all the activities that humans pursue with knowledge and will, we are after ways to minimize the role played by chance in favour of a recognition that once we recognize its presence, chance — like its obverse, intention — can be used to our advantage. Good painters never forget what they know; they simply find new ways to make that knowledge work. That is the real mystery of painting, and Gordon Smith is the art form’s consummate wizard. In his wake, he leaves no trace of the struggle; only the entangled grace of his having passed by.

Robert Enright is the senior contributing editor to Border Crossings magazine and holds the University Research Chair in Art Theory and Criticism in the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph. In 2005 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.