From Sunderland. London based.
My work documents my interest in the lost and the found, what is passing out of memory and what is synthesized as trace in the landscape. Exploring lost places and capturing the essence of a moment of abandonment has been part of my practice since my earliest work, photographing the post-industrial landscape of the North East. More recently I have used these explorations of localities on the verge of returning to unofficial wilderness in dialogue with found material. Working between these two sources has informed a broader turn in my works to consider layerings and cuttings: the process of collage by which territory is shaped into landscape by human action.
Text from the solo exhibition The Ice House, The Sanctuary Gallery, Northampton 2014
Raised in Sunderland during the tumultuous Thatcher years, Smith creates paintings of England’s post-industrial edgelands and mystical ancient landscapes in the same shimmering twilight. Employing cool blues, bio-luminescent greens, and chalky, earthy reds and browns, The Ice House is unified not only in colour but in its attention to the powerful details of natural light.
These score of paintings and dozen collages in The Ice House are new to Smith’s highly regarded catalogue, and take his work in a subtly new direction. While the subject matter remains the same – an interest in what is lost from memory and how that loss is “synthesized as trace in the landscape” – the work’s thematic unification through colour and point of view make this Smith’s most ambitious show to date.
In the new paintings for The Ice House, Smith evokes human subjects without picturing them. A lonely blur of colour implies a swampy marsh; a geodesic dome or cave-like caravan crowns a ridgeline, merging with the sky – people, in these works, are implied by tracing the vanishing outline of the landscapes they inhabit and shape. These paintings function as fluid incantations of the British modernist tradition, be that colleagues on the canvas (fellow travelers such as George Shaw and Jock McFadyen) or artists from other visual media and literature.
Here are the swimming pools of JG Ballard, rendered otherworldly in their uncanny hyper-normality, drained like a lake in need of dragging. Here are pillboxes that Jane and Louise Wilson might photograph, rendered with a watery domesticity – stripped of their imposing nature by dusk’s cool light. Here are ruined industrial towers and abandoned modernist architecture set beside stone circles and standing sarsens – a testament to the re-wilding condition of today’s edgelands, their Ozymandian hubris and abandonment, as imagined by Michael Symmons Roberts in “Hiraeth”:
“They tried to build their lost towns somewhere else, / in exile until wild was home, and new was old. / Even now, when we turn to mount a step that isn’t there, / reach for a door and meet a wall, we sense the maps / of those still empty towns are written in us.”
There is more than a hint of the rural psychogeographer in The Ice House, its exploration of the edgelands of suburbia and beyond envisaging a Britain robbed of its centre; a suspended Britain that exists only in the magic hour of shimmering moonrise. But this isn’t to say that Smith’s places are without hope – far from it. The Ice House imagines this edgeland-Britain as a landscape of possibility; one in which every boathouse and cavernous secreted pond sits quietly waiting, blurred by its own bursting potential.
Such a world of possibility is perhaps even more visible in Smith’s Paul Thek-like collages: commercial photographs on paper, cut and manipulated to form new images that peer out from the frame, awaiting their moment. Paired with found art-catalogue texts implying historical pedigree, these framed plates break through the walls of the traditional museum, the art history book, the Sotheby’s auction, leaving them all open to our plundering deconstruction.