Material Needs

Artist James Michael Smith makes no illusions

The home of Mary and James Michael Smith fills with the aroma of a spicy Mexican soup simmering on the stove. The smell is welcoming and warm on a cold, gray afternoon. Mary prepares a couple of strong cups of coffee as her husband inspects the soup pot. He begins a minitreatise on peppers: You don't break them, he says. Rather, the everyday jalapeño needs to remain whole for all the subtleties of its flavor to spice the soup. The habañero, on the other hand.... As he speaks in his soft, passionate voice, he stirs the soup, red as Oklahoma clay.

Smith is of average height, sturdily built, his gray hair combed back from his broad forehead. His presence is that of someone who is wholly grounded. He's a good one to talk about stuff, for he speaks from a love of materials -- the complexities of materials, be they oil paint, buttons, ribbons, safety pins, blood or jalapeños.

In his series of paintings called "Clouds," part of the surface is loaded with oil paint, at least one-eighth-inch thick. This area of the paintings appears, at first look, of a single strong color. Yet if the eye stays on them, the work begins, as Smith describes the phenomenon, to reveal itself. There are at least 15 variations of green in that green quadrant. And the surface is as rutted as a topographic map of the southern Utah desert, which Smith admits is partial inspiration for his new paintings currently showing at the Sheldon Galleries, but he's not about to diminish the works by titling them something superficially referential, like "Moab" or "Canyonlands."

Of those thick layers of paint, he explains after moving from kitchen table to his studio, "When you apply the medium, it has a tendency to deflate, meaning that it seems to have more body than you think it's going to have." So the "Clouds" take some time, "because you have to continuously add layers and build up certain areas. There might be certain areas that flatten and deflate. You really load up the surface. You work it with these various tools." He lays out an array of palette knives and small trowels of various shapes and sizes on a cluttered work table. "I also put a bit of acrylic varnish on the cloth to resist the paint ever so slightly. I'll laminate the cloth down, work on the drawing part of things, discover the perimeter of the shape I want it to be, and then I'll start to add the paint.

"When you look at the whole surface, though," he continues, "it's not all done with knives. I'll go back when the surface is still damp and work into it with a brush. A very stiff brush will leave a very coarse and obvious brush mark. A very soft brush, you can actually change the topography of the paint a little bit, if you feel that's necessary to do.

"The ("Cloud') paintings have two views. One is a color view, which means when you look at the small pieces and put a sufficient amount of light on them, you see edges and shapes, textures, you see the various value changes and collisions of certain things: all the normal things that concern painting. If you rotate the light to the side, what you'll see is a different painting that is more about topography -- smooth plains, little mountain areas, dips, wells, indentations, little lakes, things of that nature."

Smith's way of speaking about his work lacks the hyperbole that too often accompanies contemporary art. In a culture where transcendence is so fatuously valued, Smith's paintings are about presence. Although abstractions, they deal with the reality of things. They are evidence of another form of materialism, not the one found at the mall -- or at most galleries, for that matter. At the risk of sounding feather-headed, they convey an emotion of earth-love, a feeling sorely lacking in consumerist America. The poet Galway Kinnell has observed that it is wrong to call America a materialistic society, because Americans really hate materials -- constantly discarding them. Smith is materialistic in the sense that his paintings encourage a love of materials: the way muslin wrinkles and folds and forms patterns, the way paint drips and congeals and bulges, the way seams are stitched. The paintings "have weight and dimensionality of their own," he observes. "They're temporal. They sag. They become human. They're like us."

The paintings and drawings on exhibit at the Sheldon are intimate works, meaning they invite the viewer in for a close, one-to-one relationship. "Viewers look at abstract work because they have sympathy" for what is found there, says Smith, referring to an adage from one of his abstractionist forebears, Wassily Kandinsky. "Horses" is a large-scale painting on muslin, with sections of the muslin canvas stitched together. One section of the painting is a rich orange surface of blots and drips and stains; attached to this field of color, with a safety pin, is a stick wrapped in muslin. Another section, interrupting the orange field, is made up of a storm of black marks; to the left of that is another section stitched to the whole, parallel lines marked black with an understain of green.

From various perspectives, both visual and intellectual, "Horses" invites associations with landscape, with costume (before producing these works, Smith spent time in his studio making a coat, stitching it together and taking it apart, investigating the shapes), with the drawings made on deerskin by Native Americans of the northern Plains, but essentially Smith's works come back to the thing itself. Without illusion, the painting, as object, gives way to enchantment, which is what objects that gain a viewer's attention, or sympathy, do.

A stillness surrounds these works, partly as a result of their materiality and partly because of the lack of marketplace static. Smith is no monk. He sells his work, but he divested himself of gallery representation five years ago. He reluctantly accepts the notion that gallery owners are frustrated collectors, that they love art and could be making an easier buck, but, he says, "most of the time the first thing they say is, "Yes, we accept MasterCard.' I won't dispute that they love art, but largely, as a group, they don't act like it."

After leaving the gallery system, Smith says, "I started realizing how many opportunities were out there, all kinds of stuff. I could go anywhere, show anywhere, cut any deal I wanted to cut." He's also avoided art-world cliques, in St. Louis or New York. "I like being independent. This is not a team sport." And besides, at the end of a day in the studio, he says, what he has to say is not the stuff of cocktail repartee. "I tell my wife that in the studio today I learned about green."

In the studio, the smell of that soup growing more aromatic, he runs his hands through an array of ribbons. "This is my color source," he says. "A percentage of this stuff is antique. I used to make a point of buying antique ribbon, because there's just some colors you don't see anymore and you don't duplicate very easily.

"Training will tell you to modify colors by working with certain continuities or working with certain families of color or complements, but every now and then, if I just stick stuff up here and move it around, you'll get this bronze-brown with this green-blue, and maybe this navy, and that is not a combination I would ever think of, ever. As a result, it's been very instructive to me. A lot of people think that's bullshit, but it's true, it's absolutely true."

For a guy who finds color combinations in old ribbons, who admires the "old color" found in cartoons and graphics out of the 1930s, it's not surprising his definition of an artist comes down to "a pretty hardworking person with a fair amount of facility, some good ideas, a real sense of balance and unity in their sense of aesthetic.

"In the case of the realists, there's often just raw talent in terms of putting things together and tremendous observational skills. [The British landscape artist] Turner was a real example of that. You look at a Turner and think, "This guy was just verging right on the edge of something all the time.' But yet, if you look at it from Turner's point of view, it's not so grand. He really enjoyed fog. He really liked smoke."

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