Sunday, December 12, 2010

the other jack smith...






few months ago i picked up a small 8 page black and white catalog of paintings by jack smith from 1963. before seeing the reproductions, i'd assumed it was the work of the jack smith who made the flaming creatures film and was a compadre of ira cohen and angus maclise; but once i saw the images, i figured these must've been made by someone else, and indeed this jack smith was a painter from england, born in 1928, who began showing in 1952.

after looking at the tiny catalog (and finding a few color images of the same paintings online), i'm thinking that smith's last name was his only "ordinary" characteristic, as the paintings are pretty darn idiosyncratic, and some of them are really really wonderful... and the more i see of british painting of the 60's and early 70's the more i wonder why no one on this continent ever talks about it.

having been immersed in the relationship of sound/music and painting, as well as notation and diagrams, smith's short artist statement in the catalog, was also quite a surprise:

"i think of my paintings as diagrams of an experience or sensation. the subject is very important. the sound of the object, its noise or its silence, its intervals and its activity. when i talk about the sound or music of the subject i'm not always thinking in terms of a symphony, but groups of single notes. the closer the painting is to a diagram or graph the nearer to my intention. i like every mark to establish a fact in the most precise, economical way."


last week i was visiting another artist's studio and we ended up talking about paths - life paths, career paths, etc. at one point he asked me if i thought that some artists were not successful simply because their work was just not that good. of course, the easy answer is that at times such things, painful as they may be, are certainly true... but there are clearly so many other reasons why work may or may not be recognized - and obviously, some of them have nothing to do with the actual work itself... from my own point of view, one of the reasons work can be ignored is simply the fact that the artworld is rarely interested in something that isn't compatible with "what's going on".

whenever i discover an artist like jack smith (either of them), i can't help but wonder about the kind of presence, or absence, my own work might have 20, 40, 80 years from now. while smith's work is in the collection of a number of major UK institutions - including the tate - and he is still showing work and represented by a london gallery and "well known", i wonder how much his work participates in the conversation now. do young people speak of it, know of it, or care about it? is it written about? is it making any noise? will he have a "lee bontecou moment"? the work is certainly relevant, and not just as a precedent.

when i was in undergrad school in the mid-1980s, i discovered the work of arthur dove in a library. the funny thing is that i thought because i'd never heard of him, that dove was an obscure artist. dove's "irrelevance" was confirmed by the fact that none of the people i'd mentioned my "discovery" to had anything good to say about him; although for me, in the midst of all the spectacle going on at the time, dove - as well as ryder - felt like an antidote, and sort of saved my life - for in their humble endeavors, i felt a bit of a kinship towards my own quieter interests. the work gave me strength.

by the time i got to grad school, most people were talking about the death of painting, so when i brought up dove, hartley, ryder, and eventually forrest bess, in class, the assumption on the part of everyone else was that these artists were no longer relevant - not because they made work that was more than 5 years old, but because within the overall conversation of the moment, there was no room for work that did not fit in...

without consciously choosing to do so, i have, more often than not, ended up drifting towards what is commonly known as "the periphery" to find the things that move me. perhaps the "periphery gene" is what got me into the la punk scene in 1979, or perhaps it was the punk scene that birthed such a gene within me, but either way, it got me thinking that the outside tended to be a lot more interesting than the inside. i can't imagine anyone deciding to be an artist because they are looking for a lifetime of obscurity, but on the other hand i cannot imagine anyone wanting to be an artist so they can be rich and famous...

when i look at this little catalog of paintings that jack smith made a year before i was born, i get excited for a number of reasons - but most of all because the paintings feel as if they are his own, and as a group of works, they seem to be quietly mining their own territory. of course, there is a level of sadness knowing that in 6 years of art school and 20 years of associating with artists, historians, academics, etc. i've never seen smith's work, nor seen, nor heard, any reference to it - but so many of the artists i'm interested in are also rarely mentioned. i experienced this from the other side of things when teaching last year and my students had never heard of william s. burroughs, brion gysin, harry partch, or even charles burchfield.

smith's painting history - a consistent search through an inconsistent visual language - suggests a continual striving towards experimentation rather than signature, and in that i begin to wonder if such a life plan guarantees the periphery, and hence, a periphery's audience.

what i love about a periphery's audience, as opposed to a mainstream audience, is that a periphery's audience tends to be like a group of geeky record collectors, arguing over the work and wanting to mine it for all it will offer, and then some. the love tends to be dedicated and long term. a mainstream audience moves from passion to boredom quickly, is dedicated to no one, and tends to be excited by or arguing over one's stature and/or genius...

and so i wonder how jack smith would feel knowing that 50 years later, an artist finds his work compelling enough to spend some time thinking about it, and trying to bring it back into the conversation. over the past week or so, i've picked up this little booklet and marveled at what i can glean of the inner workings of the pictures, and they've begun to seep into me. through these few images, and smith's own text, his work has become part of my own inner conversation, and hence has truly inspired me.

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Blogger Moon River said...

i was so very touched by smith's words
and i love so much your delicate way of seeing, showing, discovering things...

thanks again!

11:27 AM  

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