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Russell Keziere

Leon Polk Smith
Ace Gallery, Vancouver, September 23 - November 14

Vanguard, Vol. 9 #1, February 1980.
[ 1,064 words ]

When the present age does not provide sufficient heroes for a contemporary historian, his natural compensating impulse is to unearth an unsung one from the past. Ted Castle, in his recent cover story for Artforum, did as much with the 'overlooked' American painter Leon Polk Smith.

We were, according to Castle, wrong to relegate Smith to a sub-set of hard-edged abstractionists or to an inconsequential American sect of Mondrian believers; his achievement, rather, was one of 'heroic proportions,' and he proves himself in retrospect to be a father of abstract painting (Artforum, September 1979). A reevaluation is alleged to be due if not overdue.

I have nothing against reevaluations but I somehow suspect that they should be accompanied, at least occasionally, by devaluations. If (as both Castle and Smith claim) Leon Polk Smith completely scooped Ellsworth Kelly, and if the latter is truly derivative of the former, then whither Kelly? Kelly is staying right where he is, in accordance with the principles of a bullish market. We have yet to see the international art community acknowledge that it has made a mistake and articulate a critical consensus to that effect that could initiate a price rollback. Inflationary tendencies provide a comfortable buffer against intrusions of critical discernment.

Smith's Vancouver exhibition was an overview of his life's work and provided an excellent opportunity to undertake a reevaluation. His showing at Ace Gallery, however, came as a complete surprise, since they have shown no previous interest in that artist whatsoever. We can only infer that this show, following hot on the heels of the Artforum cover (about a week), represents a further vote in favour of a positive reappraisal of Leon Polk Smith.

These coincidences do not concern me as much as a critical reflection on the paintings themselves. The works, and not their hype, should be the focal point. To begin with, I cannot agree with Castle that Leon Polk Smith's work is a model 'of the pure in art, the subject matter that is itself, the completely self-referential object.' This presumes, incorrectly, that abstraction is the apogee of art. But in point of fact these works are not 'pure' and 'elemental'. This is probably a good thing, as there is no reason why they should be. While the artist may espouse this theory, his works prove him mistaken.

The premise behind this theory is noxious because it asserts that the individuation of a work of art is determined by its capacity to make reference to itself. Castle's introductory quote from Hegel is indicative: '...self consciousness is only something definite, it only has real existence....' All too often an essentialist will pursue the defining elements, the principles of individuation, and end up tripping over matter. Smith's shift from the thick oils on small canvasses scribed according to geometric patterns, to large, hard-edged acrylic geometric forms, could be seen as a pursuit of the 'pure' in painting, of its essence, which suffers a similar fate.

Human beings, to take an example from nature, are not solely circumscribed by their respective acts of self-consciousness; bodily forms and genetic communication also play integral roles.

There is a fascination with surface and material in those early Smith oils. The scribed lines reveal several undercoats and sometimes hints of contrasting colours, like a thin pencil line of red covertly hidden in a thick spread of grey. The evolution of his later works indicate that these were deemed non-essential. He went on to employ the perceptual technique of playing form and space against one another so that neither could be viewed simultaneously in a traditional way. So too with those illustrations in psychology texts that ask us to determine whether we see two young girls' profiles or a single candlestick. This experimentation began within the frame, but hinted at his later and larger continuations of the theme.

And that theme is a thesis: painting is about form, space and line. Smith went on to use large shaped canvasses, some bolted together like two large eggs, an oval here, three squat red circles piled on top of one another, eight feet high. He also uses implied shapes of similar simplicity, by playing off the potential space of the white gallery wall. (That this effect is intended was perhaps indicated by the fact that the artist lamented to a recent lecture audience that some of the slides of his work were foolishly photographed against a black background.) The canvas is a means to an end: that end is the delineation of emphatic forms that could be space and vice versa. The intention, of course, is to reduce them to their elements by showing their unity. The walls therefore become operative and, in fact, a candidate for form itself. Together they propel themselves within the sphere, which has intrigued Smith for the last decade. Colour is also a means to an end: a demonstration of the plentitude of form.

Essences and elements are not so antisocial; I have not met any who were independent of some material exigency or other. Smith has forgotten this and has forgotten about the architectonic function of paintings. He has activated the wall and this is important to the large constellation paintings. But this activated wall is also acting within the confines of any number of paintings. To be consistent, Smith ought to show only one painting per room. A contradiction inevitably results. We are left in a nexus of cross-references and confrontations. This is by far the most enjoyable aspect of the exhibition, since it is strongly reminiscent of life. But this is not something that 'self-referential' objects should do. The effect is not one of mere busyness, but rather it attests to a conflict within the work itself.

This nexus that derives from the intended ambivalence of paintings can be accurately described as an expressionistic effect. Smith's paintings are animated in a way that they were not intended to be animated. His essences could be portrayed as cavorting about and embarrassing their author and they can, moreover, be seen as more repetitious than iconic.


Vanguard, Vol. 9 #1, February 1980.

Text: © Russell Keziere. All rights reserved.

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