In a 1995 interview with Ian Thom, the curator of “Gordon Smith: Black Paintings” at the Vancouver Art Gallery this past winter, the artist described himself as being “100 painters deep,” acknowledging the influence of the work of others on his own. The influences and reimagination of all of the paintings he has seen and thought about weave through the work in this show, but it is his transformation of those influences that has allowed Smith to respond to his own life and experience, both inside and outside the studio, as we see in this memorable exhibition.
“Gordon Smith: Black Paintings” consists of 25 works made between 1991 and 2017, 6 from the 1990s and 19 since 2000. Particularly in the earlier paintings, a kind of Rauschenbergian bricolage features, from an entrenching tool stuck onto the surface to, in Pachino #11, an old pair of pyjamas fixed on with glue and paint. The inclusion of the real in painting is, of course, a modernist trope, one that began, arguably, with Braque’s pasting a piece of newspaper onto a painting in 1906. That was like lighting a fuse; collage, readymades, installation and neo-materialism have all, in one way or another, ensued. For Smith, the inclusion of the real object leads us to thematic content in the work without the loaded complication of representation: that is, without the requirement of any consideration of how to paint the thing.
A second modernist trope, the use of text in painting—painted writing as markmaking—also becomes part of Smith’s lexicon here. We have seen Stuart Davis’s jazz loops, Twombly scrawls and Oscar Murillo’s Mango. Smith’s version of writing on the painted surface is, in a sense, to caption these abstract paintings. He uses annotation to point to thematic content. In 43: A Time Remembered, 2016, for example, “43” is written near the lower edge, referring to the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943; or reference is made to the names of places and military operations. The annotation can be painted on fast, with a certain agitation, or slowly and cautiously. Perhaps the most eloquent stylistic factor in the additions of texts to the paintings is the adoption of the utility of the stencil—echoing its ubiquitous military usage—there’s a Juno here that is made that way as well as more Pachinos. The clipped, easy-tomake letter forms are remembered, perhaps, from the side of a Jeep or a box of ammunition. Ordnance in painting. We see stencilled letters in Jasper Johns’s work, too—and he served in the US army during the Korean War.
In addition, the black grounds are interrupted by gestural marks of both opaque and transparent paint, as well as painted lines that demarcate window- or door-like rectangles within the paintings. The gestures are contained and elegant in a mid-1950s abstract expressionist way. The lines creating internal rectangles in the paintings are reminders of the series of works Robert Motherwell titled “Open.”
That is the “influenced” Smith, and some of the hundred painters he referred to, but it is the particular ways that he brings together gesture,object and text within the looming blacks that characterize the work and generate the richness of the viewing experience. He assiduously adopts ways to make abstract paintings and then makes them his own. Right from the start of the series, in fact, there’s a small footprint in the corner of Infinity, 1991, and it sets an agenda of intervention for the abstract paintings to come. Smith has been making these paintings for 27 years, reflecting on a painter’s life in the studio—and on his experiences as a young man.
The backstory of that young man and these paintings is irresistible: gallant, 24-year-old Canadian infantryman, wounded in Sicily in 1943, returns to the memories of his youth in a series of paintings— paintings begun when he was 71 and continuing until today. Smith is one of the last of a generation celebrated and memorialized in popular culture for the last 30 years or so. We know this band of brothers, their courage and sacrifice, through instances of aggrandizement from Brokaw to Spielberg— standards set for us by the conduct of a previous generation. The late Paul Fussell was energized to write The Boys’ Crusade as a refutation of the military romanticism inevitable in this revisitation of history. The short video at the Vancouver Art Gallery accompanying Smith’s show is suitably restrained in engaging with such mythologizing of the war, instead thoughtfully addressing the levels at which the paintings operate and providing the viewer with ways to appreciate them. Despite that, nostalgia may be inescapable. There are a couple of black and white photographs included in that video: a soldier (Smith, it is assumed) striding sunnily ashore on a Sicilian beach in a dishevelled uniform, laconically smoking a cigarette; another (same soldier, same Smith?) lying injured on a stretcher, surrounded by the rubble of the Old World as it is heroically liberated around him. Both photographs are gloriously atmospheric, impossibly historically distant from an art gallery on West Georgia Street in 2018, and they allude to that hovering mythology that is inevitably present in a consideration of Smith’s “Black Paintings.” It lives around the edges of this exhibition.
Smith is quoted as saying that, for him, painting is a “recreation of experience” rather than an “illustration of experience.” He has made wonderful landscape paintings that correspond to this distinction— who has painted the extraordinary complexity of the coming together of snow, trees and light better? The crispness of the air is palpable when looking at them. The “Black Paintings” refer to particular experiences, but they don’t recreate them in the same way—we are no closer to the experience (or even to an archaeological record) of a mid-20th-century Sicilian battlefield after seeing this work. The “Black Paintings” are closer, instead, to a meeting between abstraction and history painting. While the paintings remain anchored in a proposition made to us by abstraction, they become signs of an actual and mythological past by the interventions he has made within them and on them. They refer to his personal history, to Smith’s life as a young man and to his life as a painter in his studio—and more broadly as a memorial to a particular mid-20th century conflict. The complexity and depth of the paintings lie here; they memorialize, using the code of black as part of that operation. They are sombre, they refer to death, and that black is symbolic. The flat black around that entrenching tool is a background, a base; it fundamentally doesn’t admit the eye—illusionistic space is absent. But the blacks can also function descriptively—that is, spatially—and create depth in the paintings. This is night-beach-black, non-symbolic, representational black. There is a 2017 painting, perhaps the most impressive in the show, War Painting, 2017, where the transparency of dark hues creates an imaginative space familiar to us from landscape painting. Our experience is deepened by the way he brings those two blacks together in the paintings in this exhibition, two quite different ways of organizing a visual response to what he has seen. As with all remarkable paintings, we see the eye/hand/mind conjunction working, attending to vision and memory, all considered through the process of making.
There is a small military tag, PPCLI, in the lower right corner of that War Painting, 2017. When larger objects like the entrenching tool or a metal grid adhere to the surface, their presence, as we have seen, denies the illusionistic space of the work—the black becomes a surface, rather than a dark space. Here, the size ratio of actual object to painted surface (that surface here is washes of warm colour over a dark ground) does not limit the representational possibility of the work, and thus does not limit the imaginative space. It’s a warm painting, suggesting a beautiful and dangerous landscape at night, and there is a poignancy to that little PPCLI stuck onto the surface. In 1913 Proust quoted in a letter to Rene Blum: “We think we no longer love our dead, but … suddenly we catch sight of an old glove and burst into tears.” Does that quotation point us to the relationship Smith thinks about between a black abstract painting and an old regimental badge? The paintings invite such speculation on the relationship of his art to his life. It appears Gordon Smith has sustained an imperative through making all of the “Black Paintings,” an ordering principle that they conform to a particular mood, one engendered perhaps by a sense of loss. ❚
“Gordon Smith: Black Paintings” was exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery from October 21, 2017, to February 4, 2018.
Martin Pearce makes paintings and drawings. He teaches at the School of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Guelph.