By Liz Wylie
"Painting is not dead. It is now a high popular art, like jazz. It’s a serious branch of visual practice, probably the most serious."
– Peter Schjeldahl, 2010
A key part of both working in and looking at contemporary painting is continually prodding at it just like a tongue probing a sore tooth to check on its condition. One thing most people would agree on these days – even if grudgingly – is that painting is not dead. It has survived in the hands of practitioners who love to paint. Lately, however, painting, especially abstract painting, has been hit with slurs like crapstraction and zombie formalism. What is a serious abstract painter to do? Well, if Ontario-based artist Pete Smith is an exemplar, the answer is to keep on painting. Smith has said in conversation that he feels completely invested in painting, in every aspect of the practice. He likes the connections he feels with other painters, both contemporary and from the past, and respects and enjoys the tradition of the medium. He is not alone in this sort of attitude. As American art critic Jed Perl wrote recently: “The beauty of painting is that we experience the individualism of the painter, but never exactly in isolation. The painter is always simultaneously in the community of painters, of the present and of the past.” 1
For his current series of work, New Frontier, presented in this exhibition Smith has used a fascinating self-referential working method. In 2010 he made an animated film titled Blind Carbon Copy of his then current drawings and paintings. Broken down, the film comprised over 4000 animation stills. Smith began selecting single frames and creating paintings from them, not slavishly copying the images, but using them as jumping-off points. It would be hard to conceive of a project more self-referential than an artist creating paintings based on images of how own older paintings. But Smith finds the project of intense artistic interest, repeatedly solving the problem of how to make a new, living painting from a random digital image.
Smith definitely seems an heir to the old modernist tendency to deemphasize subject matter in painting. There is no subject to his work, except his own work. And what of the content? I would think the meaning of the work is the act and tradition of painting. So as viewers we are entering a self-contained world, as though setting foot out on a moebius strip – the ultimate in a solipsistic experience – in which all we are sure of is our own experience. And yet, there is an emotional level or layer of experience in Smith’s work that comes from his love of the act of painting, not only the physical aspects of it, but the intellectual and aesthetic ones as well. Creating a painting is a lived act, a lived experience, and a viewer cannot help picking up on some vestigial half-life of that spent energy.
In the paintings created for this show, Smith deploys an all-over democratic compositional strategy, and creates a flat picture plane upon which all the shapes reside. The palette of each painting is generally restricted to only a handful of colours, but at times tiny bytes of bright, pure colours have been wedged in, as though at the last minute. Some of the works have large shapes (looking a bit like camouflage) and some have a scattering of all sorts of tiny ones. These tend to appear almost as landscapes. They are all weightless, and floating. All the works read as summations of a process of their gradual creation.
In addition to his works on canvas for this exhibition, Smith has made a new, unique artist’s book that includes images and writings of his own, as well as snippets of Emily Carr’s writing and that of his great grandmother.
Smith grew up in North Bay, Ontario and spent some time teaching high school art there before going back for an MFA in studio at the University of Guelph. I would bet that he was an inspiring teacher and provided a great portal for those students into the world of art. His energy is infectious and I resist the urge to stand back and salute him. He is on a challenging, but ultimately rewarding path as an artist. And the possibilities for future exploration seem huge. As the late American curator Kurt Varnadoe wrote: “… abstract art, while seeming insistently to reject and destroy representation, in fact steadily expands its possibilities.” 2
1 Jed Perl, writing in The New Republic, Sept 7, 2013, “The Rectangular Canvas is Dead: Richard Diebenkorn and the problems of modern painting.”)
2. Kurt Varnadoe, Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006, p. 40.
by Olexander Wlasenko,
Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) – they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue…. Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.¹
It happened here sixty years ago. English Canada’s contribution to abstraction was born in a Whitby cottage at the lake. A group known as the Painters Eleven formed in Alexandra Luke’s lake-front studio in 1953. Six decades later abstract painting has gained renewed attention. The regional associations with non-representational image making are at once celebrated and critically examined in Pete Smith: Initial Public Offering. Smith offers an innovative perspective through which we can plot abstraction’s path and where it may lead.
Pete Smith is an artist, critic and educator who now lives in Bowmanville. He has exhibited his work extensively since completing his BFA from York University in 1998 and his MFA from the University of Guelph in 2007. He lectures at Toronto’s OCAD U and in Durham College’s Fine Art and Design program. Smith has exhibited nationally and internationally. Initial Public Offering is the premiere public gallery exhibition of Smith’s work in the region the artist now calls home.
The artist offers a materially and sensorially-rich environment. Movement appears alongside stillness, the scent of oil paint mixes with remixed digital audio, the asperity of impasto paint on burlap inhabit the spaces next to smooth animated transitions. Smith’s past becomes our present and it all bows toward the artist’s future. In the context of Smith’s studio practice, tangible becomes digital, then circles back again into material form. The artist wonders: “how can I transform the ephemeral, digital image into a specific ‘thing’, into a physical object with compelling material attributes? How can I transform an image into a painting?”
Pete Smith’s solo exhibition follows a trajectory; the restless arc of the artist’s creative process. In the fall of 2010, the painter had reached an impasse. The artist’s working model seemed to have run its course after five years. Here was a stalemate in need of resolution. The solution lay in the past half decade of Smith’s studio output. He began experimenting with a computer animation program known as Flash to resolve the painter’s block. The artist switched output into input. Smith turned a half decade of studio output into raw digital material into an animation titled blind carbon copy (bcc). The computer program became a kind of digital mirror, reflecting the artist’s studio production back in unexpected, refreshed ways. A seemingly deadlocked predicament suddenly leaned into a myriad of infinite possibilities. This animation gave new form and content to a body of work now hanging at Station Gallery.
The concept of machine-generated cultural output emerges in George Orwell’s celebrated dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is embedded in a mechanized society at war with free-spirited vision and imagination. Through Winston Smith’s eyes we see the “versificator,” a production-line machine that generates pulp novels, tabloid rags, even sentimental songs. Orwellian technology is not a tool, but rather an instrument designed for efficacy in ridding human creativity. In Orwell’s imagined late twentieth century, Winston Smith is a writer hopelessly oppressed by technological advancements. Fast forward to the realities of the early twenty-first century—Pete Smith is a painter liberated by technology’s creative potential.
Smith fittingly describes blind carbon copy as an “abstract painting image making machine.” As mentioned earlier, the animation sources five years of visual information ranging from sketches, graffiti, doodles and other graphical forms. blind carbon copy is a dynamic collage with the vertiginous sweep of a psychedelic Rorschach test. Some signs can be identified, such as the reversed “C” of Coca Cola’s Spencerian font or a single Mobius loop arrow. An emphatic declaration “We Are Alive” resurfaces several times throughout the animation. The statement is appropriated text from a graffiti tag in London, Ontario. The artist chose these words for a site-specific painting directly on the gallery wall. Other moments remain unidentified, abandoned in a spasmotic digital dance.
Shapes, forms, text and colours careen, sputter and morph into one another. The animation contains more than 5000 frames. Smith plucks individual frames to create new meaning and recent works. Each manually produced work holds the title of its numerical order in the animation. For instance, frame 5208 inspired the large oil on canvas painting, bcc5208a and so on.
In the context of Initial Public Offering we encounter Smith’s painting practice foremost. The animated source physically and metaphorically plays in the background. Every arrested still from bcc becomes equally reflective as it is refractive. Here I turn to French thinker Roland Barthes who refers to the single frame from a film as “a recalcitrant thing”, something the “scorns logical time.”² Plucked from a sequence of moving images, the single frame is an estranged particle. In this sense, Smith’s paintings have no roots or offshoots. They remain free-standing islands in an ocean of possible interpretations and interconnections.
¹ Bakhtin, M.M.. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays Ed. C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1986, p. 170.
² Barthes, R.. “The Third Meaning”. Image, Music, Text. Trans. S. Heath. New York: Hill & Wang, 1977, p. 68.