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Howard Smith Stroke and Structure

Björn Ressle Gallery Inc. January 31 – March 8, 2008

At his opening, where nearly 200 paintings and drawings are installed, I asked Howard Smith how much time there was in the room. At first he looked rather quizzically at me, but before long we lit on the figure of 17 years.

Howard Smith. Exhibition view at Björn Ressle Gallery. From left:
Howard Smith. Exhibition view at Björn Ressle Gallery. From left: "Cassandra." Oil on canvas. 60 x 58 in; "Universe (XV)." Variously sized oil on canvas.

The density of all this time, the hours and hours of labor, offer a rather pleasant counterweight to all that is instantaneous in our culture. This initial perception of density also serves as a kind of active resistance that must be overcome to persevere through the unfolding of the larger, slower paintings; it takes time to penetrate and orient oneself through 17 years of thoughts and occurrences, concentration and revision. If Howard Smith demands our patience, he also rewards it.

There is a beautiful play between the small, active works collectively titled Universe (XV), a group of 167 paintings most of whose dimensions fall under 6 or 7 inches, and the five larger paintings spaced around the room. Initially one is impressed with the texture of Smith’s brushstrokes, which appear to be made directly and repetitively with a downward gesture on each canvas. Often essentially the same, variations do occur over the breadth of the surface, sometimes in the spacing between the strokes and sometimes as it shifts from lighter at one end to darker at the other.

However, despite the remarkable consistently with which Smith works, the group of paintings as a whole defies any attempt at generalization. Just as one settles on a tendency that could characterize all of them, a whole other category emerges to account for enough works to preclude dismissing it as an aberration.

There are simple, single shapes rendered in Smith’s signature textural surface that skirt the edges of their supporting frames. Then there are pieces that resemble a screen or that take on the form of an old cathode ray tube when he marginally increases the distance from the edge of the frame to the inner form. There are paintings that seem to indicate Smith has a significant relationship with the monochrome, and compositions that contextualize this tendency within a larger program, as if it had spontaneously happened in the course of his investigations. There are wavy lines and geometric forms; there are spiral forms and gridded lines. Although most forms acknowledge a figure/ground relationship employing the white underneath, there are a few round paintings on this large wall of small pieces that work simply as a figure against the ground of the wall itself.

After a long time one sees a single irregularly shaped canvas among the whole.

What appears initially as a remarkable consistency slowly reveals an incredible diversity. Each work speaks as much about the particulars of others as about itself. Smith continually tests his relationships—the field articulates difference in the company of sameness. This dialectical pairing at the root of Smith’s endeavor creates a backdrop against which subtle changes in method or monochrome can be seen as momentous decisions. We can read their significance with the knowledge that a clear intent must lie beneath each shift.

In nearly every painting, white appears as a grounding element, yet the few where that is not the case seem no less a part of the group. They come forward only later to offer their greater richness in the world of color. All the activity involved in apprehending the group of small paintings—the eye moving here and there, referencing one set of decisions against another in an attempt to get a handle on what this painter is doing—stand in direct opposition to the calm slow motion of the larger paintings that fill out the exhibition.

In Siren, a cerulean blue field hovers somewhere on or near the surface of the canvas. Every bump and irregularity in the weave of the linen registers itself against the gesture of Smith’s sable brush marks. Then the delicate strokes give way to the surface they create; over a large expanse the irregularities of the hand create a pattern onto which we can project the forms that linger in the forefront of our own minds. In doing so a dialogical space opens up.

Smith’s way of laying down the paint with little gaps of white ground in between has developed into a unique method of bringing light into his dark blue, black and green hues without diluting their intensity. From an oblique angle, with the white itself not as visible, light bounces off the unpainted surfaces and mixes with each color to give it a special luminosity. Smith’s paintings employ aspects of a sculptural sensibility where each angle reveals something phenomenal, challenging the limits of the formalist notion of frontality in painting.

Black & Red (2003–2006), is an 11 ¾-inch square canvas not deeper that an inch and a fraction more. It uses a kind of optical mixture to generate the illusion that colors other than red and black are coalescing around a grid of red squares on the black field. Here again Smith is using the light reflected by the white ground to play havoc with our color perception and make us see all sorts of colors that aren’t there. These optically generated colors and the structure of their organization allows a certain spatial reading in the field despite the flatness of the grid. Once you come close to verifying the material nature of what you are seeing, those effects partially disappear. Green, however, seems to be able to interject itself no matter what. Were he a contemporary, Henri Bergson, with his seminal Matter and Memory, would no doubt find a fertile ground here.

Red, Blue, Pink (2005) and Red, Yellow, Blue (2004 – 2005) both use small square brushstrokes to dazzle the eye in a quiet way; one seems to be looking at very different works up close and from a distance. Closer up, the texture of the surface and the application of paint allows a haptic world to emerge; from a distance they coalesce into a felt sense. Image plays a small role here, sensation a large one.

S>mith also presents a selection of drawings that bring to mind his colleague from the Radical Painting Group of the early eighties, Marcia Hafif. The drawings distinguish themselves with their careful strokes and thoughtful spaces; a play of similarity and difference underscores Smith’s consistency. Yet the drawings ask us their own questions—there is a drive to see the uniqueness in everything, to show that one gesture is not another and each deserves the time to distinguish itself. In a fast-paced world, it takes a stubborn conviction to maintain a position that breaks the flow of progress, that asks us to slow down, to look, to feel and to reconsider.

Smith seems to acknowledge that there are no absolute conditions, that the world constantly shifts and changes, that the relationships between things become a foundation on which to build. What we see is moving, we know that is true on a molecular level—but Smith, by showing us what that might actually look like, allows us to experience how it is.

In the beautiful small room at Ressle’s gallery, Smith’s paintings sit quietly, content that their own discoveries and revelations will remain and will continue to offer themselves to whomever attempts to take note. The guest book at the door is an indication of the notable cast who has, and of the respect this artist has earned from his peers.


Joan Waltemath

JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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