Cary Smith is presently showing his work in an exhibition titled “Splat”, which also features Ms. Beck’s essay. Splat is showing from 16 February until 13 March 2011 at Feature Inc. gallery in New York City, located at 131 Allen Street between Delancey and Rivington Streets. Feature Inc. is open Wednesday through Saturday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. For more information on Feature Inc., please visit www.featureinc.com.
The following introductory essay accompanied Cary Smith’s work in an exhibition titled “We are the Dollars and Cents”. The exhibition was housed in Real Art Ways gallery in Hartford, Connecticut from October 21 until December 12, 2010. Lisa Beck authored the essay.
The conundrum of Cary Smith’s work is this: it is clear yet obtuse, concise yet open-ended, bright yet mysterious. Graphic and seemingly simple, it leaves open many more questions than it answers. Cary Smith has said of his work: “The deeper meanings, like the meaning of the images, why I paint and draw so carefully, I’ll leave to others to see.” Here is my reading.
The paintings are composed, for the most part, of two colors, usually a very saturated hue and white. The usual figure ground/relationship is reversed. The ‘figures’ in white are not painted on top of the colored areas. Rather, the white lines and shapes are the untouched primer layer of the canvas left bare as the color was applied. The surrounding color cannot be considered as merely background, as it is what gives form to the images. The way that the lines and shapes are formed by an element outside of themselves is a subtle analogy to the way our perceptions and ideas are affected by our environment.
In earlier works such as Babel (black), the areas of color are nearly completely flat, made with brushstrokes that are not very apparent. They are populated with lively juggling acts of lines, loops, and shapes such as crystal-like diamonds, or floating ovals that may have pie-charted centers or contain a biomorphic motif. The lines hug the perimeter of the canvas, then swerve into the center where they tangle and confront the floating shapes, settling into precarious-looking arrangements. These works put me in mind of the teeming world one can find when looking at a drop of water through a microscope.
In the latest paintings such as Splat # 14 (cerulean), the colored areas and white shapes grasp each other like hands with fingers clasped. There is a symbiosis between the interconnecting protrusions of unpainted and painted areas as color and white encroach on and shape each other. The white shape grows out of a solid rectilinear “handle,” and the color is bounded by the rectangular edges of the canvas, in a joining of organic and rectilinear motifs. They are painted in layers of tiny brushstrokes, seemingly solid and opaque but actually humming with energy. The color here veers away from the primary to what Smith calls “young” color. Again, the white areas are unpainted. The shapes here seem to me to refer to a sort of biological specimen- maybe an alien life form or a scientifically derived hybrid that started out confined but has grown wild.
The paintings’ imagery is derived from Smith’s work on drawings in series with gouache or pencil. We can see the mutation of the repertoire of lines, shapes and arrangements that eventually appear in the paintings. As he gives himself over to the physical craft of the drawings’ making, his motifs evolve through an accretion of subtle adjustments and changes. Under the spell of these signs and symbol, Smith hones them in numerous permutations, letting them lead him into stranger and stranger territory.
Smith has made another body of works on paper that is composed of gridded compartments in rectangular or diamond shaped sections, filled with intersecting lines or solid areas. These works are made on white or colored paper in pencil. The patterns of equal spacing and straight lines give way and start to wander, as the imagery makes its own idiosyncratic journey across the paper. The diamond patterned drawings such as Untitled (diamonds, #15) put me in mind of maps and aboriginal cloth patterns. Those with a gridded rectangular structure like Untitled (rectangles, #8) relate to game boards or circuitry. Diagrammatic and explicatory without specifying what they are describing, they invite us to trace them with our eyes and let that experience inform us without need of a key.
The title of this exhibition is “We are the Dollars and Cents,” borrowed from a song by the band Radiohead. Money is an abstraction- the pieces of paper and coins we use are accepted as having value not in and of themselves, but because of what they stand for. Like artworks, they are covered with signs and symbols that can be interpreted in contradictory ways. So it is with the iconography of Smith’s images.
Smith’s work evinces his efforts to find a path or method of recognition through use of his symbolic motifs, much like tantric paintings indicating the ineffable with very simple, concentrated imagery. They are maps of a shifting territory. The Radiohead song’s lyric says: “ I want to live in the Promised Land.” Sure, so do I, but how do we get there? And would we know it if we saw it? Cary Smith’s work presents directions to a place at which we may never arrive, glimpses of what we might see if we did, and diagrams of the way things work there. As our eyes bask in the pools of color, follow the loops, or traverse the grids, the journey is the point, not the arrival.
– Lisa Beck, September 2010