Clive Smith, Painting in Time
by Eleanor Heartney
Few things in the western painting tradition are more mysterious than the nature of the relationship between artist and model. Gossip over questions about influence, power and the vulnerabilities of both parties frequently accompanies these associations. Even if no sexual favors are exchanged, the encounter is often laced with erotic charge. This fact has never been more stirringly relayed than in Picasso's satirical portraits of the artist as a slightly craven minotaur nearly overwhelmed by his voluptuous nude model.
Is the model a "muse"? Is the artist a soul snatcher? What happens in that intense zone between observer and observed? Advanced physics tells us that on the subatomic level, the very act of observation alters the thing observed. Is the reverse true? Does the same thing happen between artist and model? And what happens when artist and model are the same?
Clive Smith's recent paintings bring such questions to mind in a deeply thought provoking way. Smith is known for exquisitely crafted paintings of full figures presented within psychologically evocative settings. In these works, beds, tables, and chairs become props upon which one or more characters play out scenarios of intimacy and isolation. Often figures seem lost in their own worlds even when they are minimally interacting.
Recently, Smith has begun to radically simplify his approach, moving from the psychological dimensions of space to these of time. In one set of paintings, single nude figures sit somewhat uncomfortably on what appear to be floating swings, staring directly ahead. There are no background details to distract from the figures, or to place them in any kind of recognizable environment. As a result, the viewers is drawn into the work in an almost physical way, becoming aware that model and observer exist in a special zone, independent of the surrounding world.
In Smith's most recent paintings, things have been simplified even further. Each work presents a series of head-on portraits painted on small panels and arranged on the wall in various configurations. The viewer quickly realizes that, although each panel in a set depicts the same face, details of features, hair, coloring and expression vary slightly from portrait to portrait. As a result, an initial impression of homogeneity quickly gives way to a study of subtle and sometimes barely discernible differences.
It turns out that these series of images have been painted according to a set of rules determined in advance by the artist. In the case of with and without Jennifer for 33 weeks, Smith and his model, who is a friend, agreed to meet one night a week for a three hour session. Each panel represents a single session. In those weeks when artist and model were unable to fulfill this compact, Smith has left a space for the missed appointment. Installed on the wall in an undulating line, they suggest the organic flow of time spent with a special person.
June 2004 with my father consists of a series of two sided paintings that line a corner. They have been created by conjoining two small panels at a right angle, so that each protrudes from the corner like a small cube. One side of each cube contains Smith's own portrait, the other represents his father. The two faces almost seem to blend into each other where their edges meet, suggesting the psychological and physical bonds of the familial relationship. These were painted, one pair each day, for the month that his father was visiting him from England.
Another work self portrait 365 days consists of a year's worth of small self portraits completed each day, no matter where the artist was at the time. They are arranged grid fashion on the wall, so that from a distance they seem governed by the strict geometry of their placement. Close up however, it is the uniqueness of each image that fascinates. Stubble varies, shadows change, even the intensity of the gaze waxes and wanes. The fact that we are looking at the artist as he looks at himself adds a layer of intensity to the experience of the work.
Smith's strict adherence to system and his repetitive format bring to mind modernist conventions of seriality and mechanical reproduction. However, the paintings themselves hark back to earlier art traditions. They are about close, unaided observation, hand craftsmanship, the uniqueness of each moment of vision, and the ever changing nature of the relationship between artist, model and viewer. In certain respects they recall precedents like Monet's haystacks, in which each version of the scene reflects the shifting effects of sun, shadow and atmosphere. But because the subjects are people, they also reference the portrait tradition, and its confidence in the artist's ability to find a subject's inner truth.
At the same time, these works remind us that painting has long struggled to escape the tyranny of stasis. A painting is an object that exists in space but, even before the invention of cinema, artists have used it to express stories that unfold in time. Medieval painters narrated the lives of the saints in paintings whose multiple episodes resemble a modern comic strip. History painters like Thomas Cole created pairings in series to chronicle the rise and fall of great civilizations. In the last century, Futurists borrowed from Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies to depict the sequential movements of a figure or creature within a single canvas. The Cubists evoked a similar sense of movement by incorporating different viewpoints within the same work.
Smith brings time into painting by making it part of his working process. Days and hours are marked by his canvases in a manner that recalls On Kawara's date paintings, each of which was completed on the day recorded on the canvas. In effect, such works become memory triggers for the artist, evoking the moments of their creation. For viewers, they introduce a sense of the unique flavor of each encounter between artist and model.
Smith notes that one effect of his new preoccupation with time is to take him away from the perfectionism that characterizes his earlier figure studies. Like photography, Smith's full figure works valorize what photographer Cartier Bresson referred to as the "perfect moment". They represent the distillation of what may be hundreds of painting hours into a single image. By contrast, the new works are created within very specific time constraints. They must be completed in a day, an hour or a set of hours as determined in advance by the artist. As a result they encapsulate the circumstances of a single modeling session. The artist's mood, the model's state of alertness or fatigue, the spoken and unspoken currents flowing between them that day, all becoming a part of each image. As a result, they bring viewers as close as they are likely to get to the process of painting from the model.
Interestingly, given Smith's allegiance to painting's venerable figurative tradition, there is a certain postmodern aspect to these works. They offer us a succession of representations of a singe individual, each different and each equally "valid". None can lay claim to being the "original" or the most "authentic" image. Instead, they remind us that we live immersed in time, that our reality is constantly changing, and that our identity is a fiction created by artificially wresting some illusion of completeness out of the flux of lived experience.
Which of the images in each series is the "real" portrait? Can there ever be such a thing as an objective portrayal? Or is the situation of the artist and model just a mirror of all encounters with a world that is conjured into concrete reality by the mysterious dance of the observer and the observed?