In the hands of Smith, canvas is not used as a neutral vehicle for carrying paint. Instead it functions as an integral component of his paintings on a par with the colours and forms that adorn them. Canvas is ripped, torn, folded, stretched, saturated, cut, sewn, creased and layered. Many of these processes stand out for their physicality; they represent impositions upon the canvas, severing the canvas as a butcher might a carcass, foisting Smith’s will upon the material with force.
The results however do not ring out of violence, or at least not a spurious or wholly destructive violence, because this process of dismantling represents the means by which his paintings are simultaneously reconstructed. Smith describes this as his wrangling of beauty with brutality.
The build up of these processes – that move between the gradual and fluid to the stark and dramatic – are heavily evidenced on the surface of Smith’s work. Layers of often deep black paint smother areas of the canvas unevenly. Edges are frayed, tendrils of the canvas’s weave undoing, and scraps of paint splattered canvas removed and affixed to others. There is something of the makeshift about them, a sense in which Smith brings that quality to the fore in celebration, in an attempt to capture the spontaneity of making in the work’s final iteration. His recent solution has been to form a large work by collaging smaller works together, thereby harnessing the energy of multiple sections of smaller works within the landscape of a whole painting. As a process it is in someways analogous to grafting where one plant is artificially affixed to another, to grow together as one. Having said that, with Smith nothing ever seems absolutely final but marked with volatility. The chances are that a once final work may well be later slashed and redistributed – a chunk here, a slice there – the images appear almost self-propagating.
This tension between order and chaos, relates also to Smith’s concurrent mastery of his motifs and a relinquishing of control of the whole. He goes to elaborate lengths to open his work up to potential accidental mark-making: cutting out a central section from a canvas and removing it entirely; folding and unfolding painted canvases so that the paint from one rubs off on another; using unprimed canvases which he paints on from the back in diluted and hard to manage paint, suffusing the canvas in inky pools. Smith’s work summons, therefore, his ongoing struggle to encapsulate the energy so natural to drawing, in his large-scale works. He sees drawing as pivotal, describing a process of ‘drawing into the painting’. This is perhaps why much of his work strikes as highly redolent of Paul Klee – if blown up ten-fold – who famously described drawing as like ‘taking a line for a walk’. Klee’s assertion was founded on the belief that drawing was a fundamentally intuitive and spontaneous process during which a line could go anywhere at any time. Similarly, Smith strives to keep as many options as possible open for the marks and incisions that stalk his painted surfaces, whether intentionally drawn, impressed or accidentally dripped or bled.