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.