MODERNITY IN ITS TOTALITY
by Marc Le Bot
The century which has just come to a close was rich in artistic achievements, all the more so because pictorial art broke with classical tradition.This new form of art has insistently questioned its new functions beyond the classical framework of art, in the social, mental and personal lives of modern-day man; questions which cannot help but remain unanswered, despite somewhat dogmatic responses, as this "modern" art continues to develop and thrive. Certain artists have also been known to conclude that the present times have put art at a dead end, causing them to react angrily, wanting to smash everything or taking sides with nihilistic nonsense.
In this context, David Smyth's works follow an exemplary line of behaviour. Far from being dogmatic, far from letting himself be tempted by nihilism, he has shown that he is not only aware of the questions which are asked of art today, but above all that he has a keen understandnig of the "means" at the disposal of contemporary art which are necessary for it to continue making progress. And various means are available. Each one of the apparently has its own role to play in David Smyth's painthigs, marked by a sense of marked by a sense of freedom or even of insolence which propels freedom or even of insolence which propels them in turn into the foreground. Faced with the explosive forces which surface there, the painter nonetheless wishes to imposes certain principles of order on the whole. Although he may be spirited, he certainly isn't chaotic. His works are imbued with a dynamism which is all the more remarkable for his never letting them get trapped in a rigid systern. This collection of works bears witness to our confusion, but it also bears witness to a keen awareness of what is at stake today in the art world and that is, remarkably enough, the practical circumstances in which the destiny of modern art is unfolding.
FIGURES AND BACKGROUNDS
As a rule, we pick out figures which stand out from the background in paintings. We perceive individuals against a backdrop of architecture or countryside, creating a global vision for ourselves by linking these two elements. However, as art lovers, we can also focus on one or the other. Now, in David Smyth's paintings, a special force first draws us towards the background. Sometimes this force of attraction is so strong that we wonder whether, while he was working, the painter was distracted or even captivated by the background of the bare canvas on which his first strokes have been applied in a play of colours. We get the same impression when standing in front of "Venice" (1994) where blues of various intensities and tones are spread out generously over the painted surface. Blue is the dominant colour, even if it is pierced by greens and ochres, or perhaps it is the other way round. A similar technique is played with to striking effect in "Fractures" (1994). Nevertheless, now and again, contoured shapes imprint themselves on backgrounds which, in turn, appear to be relatively shapeless because the edges of the colours are quite vague.
In its raw state, playing off shape against shapelessness is part and parcel of painting, perhaps because it has been at the heart of all advances since Palaeolithic cave paintings. David Smyth's works remind us forcefully of it because they present this confrontation without anecdote: the shapes which we discern in "Venice" are unidentifiable. In an "abstract" way, so to speak, this opposition between shape and shapelessness gives us something to think about. In fact, the opposition is like some sort of duel where the one cannot exist without the other. Both of them are linked, both are mutually dependent on each other. Today it could be said that David Smyth is one of those leading us to a new interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci's conviction that painters should look for inspiration while contemplating, an old wall, firing their imagination on the basis of a shapeless surface. Da Vinci's advice to a young painter was: "When you look at patches of colour on walls or walls made out of different sorts of stories, and you have to imagine a scene in front of you, you will see different landscapes with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, great valleys and groups of hills.You will also detect battles and rapidly moving figures, strange faces and looks, exotic costumes and an infinite variety of things to which you will be able to assign distinct and well-formed shapes" (Carnets 11, p. 207).
A BIAS TOWARDS THINGS
David Smyth doesn't find countrysides, battle scenes or strange and exotic figures appearing on his "shapeless" backgrounds. In fact the things he sees are associated with our ordinary modern lifestyle. Using the technique of collage, he reminds us of things we can see which inhabit and sometimes Clutter upour daily lives. In "Fractures", we can pick out a face and discern a female body; we can try to decipher the words on the torn up advertisements. Our perceptive powers are always affected by our present point of view and our memories, which is necessary when confronted with a world.
There is also a sort of restlessness in David Smyth which wells up in his paintings. "Broadway" (1996) features a traffic sign, but it points "nowhere" or "anywhere". Likewise, in "A -Train" (1996), a means of Urban locomotion is en route for an unknown, unidentified destination. Here the artist picks on aspects of life in large modern cities, but cities which are like confusing labyrinths in which we might be threatened by an unidentifiable Minotaur. In other paintings David Smyth seems to want to fix our attention on urban movement, or rather on urban complexity, featuring a intricate play of colours, as in "Venice" (1995), "Turin" (1995), "Berlin" (1992), or even more explicitly in "Street Noises" (1993), thanks to its title. The "things" which David Smyth is biased towards cannot all be named.The "street noises" are evoked in the painting by repetitive small white rectangles scattered over a background dominated by reddish ochre. Everybody is free to imagine that every white rectangle stands for a car or a building. It doesn't really matter. Here David Smych is playing with the idea of "repeated perception" but this idea could be employed just as easily to describe all sorts of paintings which are said to be "abstract" because nothing in them relates to our concrete experiences of figures or things. Amongst David Smyth's own oeuvre, for example, this would include works like "Murray Stree" (1994) or "Hip Hop" (1996). Nevertheless, it is not an abstract type of logic which is at work in David Smyth's paintings but always vivid perceptions of colour which impose themselves on numerous, equally concrete, visual experiences, just as they impose themselves on us. References to urban life alluded to in many of these paintings reinforce the idea that the painter's spirit is fundamentally drawn to everything which is true life in our society.
THE PASSION OF COLOR
David Smyth's paintings radiate with colour which make us look at them from every direction. It's true to say that colour has played an important role in twentieth century art in general and perhaps it will continue to do so for a long time. Painting in the classical period was dominated by rules of perspective, so much so that the course of these lines was the prime element imposed on painters. In contrast, the twentieth century seems to be dominated by a different element, that of colour. And hasn't this been the case since Van Gogh, or, indeed, since Delacroix? The question is: why? The reply is complex but as Van Gogh put it: "I have attempted to express the terrible passions of man with that red and that green" (Lettres 5 Theo, p. 231), This reply surely suits David Smyth as he doesn't submit to the geometric precision of perspective either. He also manipulates vivid colours to shatter our emotions. While one of his paintings may be predominantly red and another predominantly blue, there isn't a single one where a multitude of colours doesn't come into play. Here, too, red and green confront each other, but it could just as easily be ochre and blue. On the other hand, the way in which colour is treated in David Smyth's works takes on its own particular direction: the blocks of colour or the coloured patches always have vague edges. None of those boldly outlined areas of colour here, as in Gauguin or Fauvism. Here the edges are more ragged: colours lie side by side, merging into one another like water and sand on a beach, shading into one another as he moves from one colour to the next. As David Sinyth conceives it, the coloured areas form expanses streaked with bright colours where every hue plays with every other one in a very sensual game which actually shatters the affectivity of the "observer". Moving imperceptibly from one to the next, we proceed from one emotion to the next: our visual sensuality is stopped dead by a multitude of perceptions so as to make our entire body start resonating.
CHESSBOARD OF THE VISIBLE
Nevertheless, David Smyth's works never lapse into a confusion of perceptions. Some of his paintings consist of orthogonal grids of variable regularity. Some of them are strict, so much so that they resemble windows. Others are more indeterminate, creating deformed or irregularly spaced grids.Yet others form barriers of sorts. These regular forms appear time and again. And as this image is like a closed window in David Smyth's work, faced with all those grids, it is hard to keep ourselves from conjuring up other metamorphoses concerning the form or theme of the window which painters and authors from the fifteenth century onwards have not stopped talking about since. Indeed, Renaissance man invariably thought of painted images as resembling scenes viewed through a window (albeit an open one in this case). It is a fact that the rectangle of a window limits our vision, it "frames" it and focuses it within its confines. David Smyth is also conscious of this desire to frame what can be seen in order to give it a greater visual intensity. But the modern world, of which David Smyth is an attentive observer, is even more stringent when it comes to containing the forces and dynamism which are present in it.They are too powerful to be contained within the simple frame of a window.They tend to disperse. David Smyth substitutes grids for an open window just like Paul Klee before him. For there is a feeling in contemporary art that colour is endowed with a kind of explosive force, related to those "terrible passions" spoken of by Vincent Van Gogh. In order to contain it, this force should be channelled into a sort of grid or draughtboard. The shape of an irregular draughtboard comes up frequently in David Smyth's works, this irregularity going hand in hand with the fact that the expanses of colour always go beyond their apparent limits. Or else it is the collages made out of torn paper that catch the eye because these pieces of paper sport letters.
THE AUTHORITY OF LETTERS
David Srnyth's paintings often have writing on them.Torn up pieces of posters or pages out of magazines are pasted onto his canvases. Sometimes they include photographic images and they always include fragments of words, which are only partially legible.This leaves just letters behind, white on black or black on white, which makes therit stand out when we look at them.
As the letters never add up to anything more than fragments of words, this means they simultaneously cry out to be read yet refuse to be read. In this respect, David Srnyth's position is unique, undoubtedly symbolizing the ambiguous relationship which binds the visible to the word and the gaze to the letter. This ambiguity has to do with what the visible and the speakable call each other but also with what keeps them both apart. Something about the gaze, David Smyth seems to be saying, appeals to the spoken word, but the spoken word will never take over from vision just as vision will never take over from the spoken word. Because he is a very modern spirit, David Srnyth makes this relationship even more ambiguous. The fragments of writing which are pasted on the surface of his paintings come from an advert or the pages of a magazine about which we know nothing: we only know that it is about "things" which catch our eyes when we are passing through urban landscapes. And because they are expressed on paper, they come partly unstuck and become torn into pieces. However, unlike the so-called "affichistes" in the sixties and seventies, David Smyth does not go in for what could be called the aesthetics of torn up posters. In his case, the torn up poster does not constitute the body of his work. In an infinitely more critical manner, his collages actually revive the ancient question of the status of writing as related to the visible. Therefore it's certainly not by chance that several of David Srnyth's paintings bear the names of cities - Rio, Turin, Berlin,Venice. In them the painter has discovered that peculiar effect of our modernity: paintings, like towns, can transform a legible text into a visual "thing" where the letter plays with colours. There is a feeling of playful gaiety which exploits everything which literally comes into view.
PLACES RATHER THAN THINGS
Shapeless walls pretending to be backgrounds, windows, grids and draughtboards, colours in search of their limits, illegible inscriptions: all of these features move David Smyth's paintings far away from representations of figures and things. Instead, his paintings tend to suggest places, expanses, spaces, where the painter leaves it up to us, if we should so desire, to determine their nature. Now, can we actually avoid doing this? Let's go back to Leonardo da Vinci: when faced with spaces which are only vaguely determined, the imagination always gets to work, leading us to believe that there aren't any thoughts without images.
For me, David Smyth's paintings have something scorching about them in the same way that deserts are scorching with their sun and arid land. Amidst these great expanses you walk from one stone or rock to the next, from one undulation to the next, and sometimes you climb cliffs of sand or even try to pinpoint an oasis in the dazzling sunlight. Here too, the eye is on the lookout for landmarks. However, even if such a landmark can be found in the guise of a grid, it does not hollow out the space down deep so that things can loom up. The space is flat and bare, that's the truth of the inatter. Just like in dry and sunny deserts, where mirages sometimes appear suddenly. But they do riot suddenly appear on the horizon.There is no horizon here. Here the earth is "vast", devastated. There is an element of play in David Smyth's paintings. There is also a dimension of tragedy. As much as we might allow ourselves to be taken in by the joyful play of changing colours merging into one another as they appear to be dancing around in a ring, holding each other by the hand, the opposite is in fact true : a tormented, base which is vividly animated by the disordered nature of the colours but where the grids or draughtboards no longer appeal to embrace anything other than the debris of things. Even if the shaded backgrounds in David Smyth's paintings are what seduces the observer's gaze first, the "debris" or "near-objects" work at transfixing it. They finish off by cluttering tip the glances which they have solicited from all points of the expanse.They speak of abandonment and solitude in vast places scattered with "trivia".There is something there which doesn't concern the eye of the painter alone, nor the pleasure of the observers' eyes. It has to do with human life as it urges each and every one of us to obstinately keep to our paths, even when disorientated and stumbling, over obstacles. And thus David Smyth's work also appeals to a new form of humanism: the noises of a world which is often disordered and in search of its own order, call to us in ravaged, vacant places.