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March 13, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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‘Paintings for People’

I was nervous about doing an interview with Michael Smither.

Even though the exceptional standard of journalism here at Salient makes it look easy to conduct an informative and inquiring interview, it is actually quite difficult to come up with questions that don’t make you look like either a Neanderthal or a pretentious fool. And Micheal Smither is a seminal figure in twentieth century New Zealand painting – a big wig, head honcho, or main man if you will. And here was little ol’ me doing an interview with him. So yeah, I was nervous.

However, it turns out that I needn’t have worried in the slightest. Michael Smither is the nicest person ever! For those in the know, Smither’s major exhibition ‘The Wonder Years’ opened at the City Gallery recently and runs until June 5. In conjunction with the opening, Smither had been doing interviews all week with a variety of media and I was the last one. So by all accounts he should have been tired, sick of answering the same predictable questions and going over the same material. But instead he was interesting, verbose, genuinely excited about the exhibition, and he also lent me his hat because the sun was shining right in my eyes. Michael Smither is tops.

Impressively, Smither has been working as a fulltime artist for the majority of his career. He went to ELAM art school in Auckland in 1959, mainly encouraged by his father to get some sort of ‘proper’ qualification, but left during his second year as he felt that he was being trained to be an art teacher, not an artist. “I was very focused on what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a painter. Then it was pretty much then inconceivable. There would have been about four maybe five fulltime artists in New Zealand in those days, but mostly you had to get a job as a school teacher, or maybe a job in an art gallery if you were lucky enough, like McCahon.’”

It certainly takes bravery to go it alone in the arts, particularly in New Zealand, and especially so in the early 1960s when the arts infrastructure was not nearly as extensive or as well facilitated as today (though there is still a long way to go). But for the majority of his life Smither has almost exclusively been a painter. During these early years, financially supported by his parents (he was an only child) and a series of part-time jobs, Smither learnt his craft and created the impressive body of luminescent paintings now on show at the City Gallery.

‘The Wonder Years’ focuses on the period of Smither’s life and work from 1962 to 1979, showing the undeniable links between one’s personal and professional spheres. It incorporates the period after he left art school and was living in his hometown of New Plymouth. Newly married to poet Elizabeth, and the father of three young children, Smither turned to his immediate domestic environment to create images of clarity, sincerity, and often a certain amount of the macabre. It is this sense of disquiet that most interests me in the family scenes that are predominant in this exhibition. While images such as Big Occity appear as depictions of funny childhood experiences and innocence, one cannot escape the sense of impending doom or even terror that pervades them. Big Occity shows Smither’s son, Thomas, reaching for the light switch which controlled the whole house’s power supply. He strains upwards; there is a tension in whether or not he will actually be able to reach the switch, and glances backwards to see if he will be caught, his large simplified face starting in its adult knowledge of his wrong doing.

I enjoy this tension that Smither sets up between innocence and knowledge. I find it animates the paintings of his children, and hotwires them into action. This is no more evident than in Interior with child where Smither’s son and his toy car are depicted creepily shrouded in cloth. Smither describes this as an extremely powerful moment for him: having seen a photo in the newspaper of a car crash, where the dead women’s car had been covered in tarpaulin, he walked into the lounge to find Thomas had covered his toy car in the same way. “When he saw me looking he must have got some sort of feeling that I was extremely affected by it. And he threw his blanket over his head in sort of embarrassment or realization. It was a really strange moment for me. So I painted it.”

This is what happens: there’s an event or an assemblage of objects, and Smither seizes the moment and draws it. One of the most interesting parts of the exhibition is the collection of drawings which have been brought out from the strongholds of Te Papa for the occasion. Interestingly enough for someone who creates such highly finished paintings, Smither puts great emphasis on the importance of his drawings. “One of the triumphs of the show is getting the drawing books out of Te Papa. I gave them to Te Papa in 1981. If I had the choice between a good drawing and a good painting I’d take the drawing any day. Drawing is about grabbing that immediate poetic moment. They are at an intimate level and I think a drawing says more with less.” The sketches capture very specific moments, which Smither would later revisit and create paintings out of. He would often set up a border around tableaus of domesticity while he hurriedly sketched them, so that they couldn’t be disturbed from their original state. Images such as Yellow rubber gloves, were pounced upon after Elizabeth finished the washing up one night, and when painted assume a detail and magnitude far beyond their day-to-day use.

This extension of the natural may have been what led Ron Brownson, the curator of the exhibition, to term Smither’s works as “magic realism”. Smither himself has trouble with the term, perhaps because of his obvious modesty, but I find it a particularly instructive way of describing the works. For all their domesticity and everydayness the objects that Smither depicts take on new meanings. Yellow rubber gloves appear as some sort of lurid dead-sea life, curiously shaped without the support of busy hands inside them. Stripped from their traditional use they lie uneasily between the functional and the aesthetic. I think the vibrant colour for which Michael Smither is well known also works to transport his depictions of family and surrounds beyond their superficial simplicity into another realm. Early on in his career when Smither worked at a car painting shop, he was intrigued by the layers of paint which could be unearthed, “cars in those days used to have five or six layers of paint, so when you were sandpapering them down you used to reveal all these different colours. That actually was very interesting for me, and I did a lot of painting which employed that idea of scraping back to other things underneath.” Layering of oils, stripping back, and layering again, creates the luminosity that is characteristic of a Michael Smither piece and contributes to his work transcending the bracket of straight up ‘realism’ to a quite surprising, almost radiant depiction of domesticity.

While doing the interview it soon became clear that each painting, like Yellow rubber gloves, is directly connected to a specific moment and a specific story in Smither’s life. When one of the paintings came up in conversation, Smither would invariably illustrate it with its background story. His work is explicitly informed by his experience, his family, and his environment. And this is perhaps what makes Smither so popular. Everyone loves to know the biographies of artists: the when, where, who and what of art. This is evident in the popularity of the biographical strain of art history, such as the coffee table books which detail Picasso’s life and relate each of his paintings to different wives/mistresses. Biography makes art more accessible because it is easier to see the work’s ‘meaning’. For example, Crows over the Wheatfields by Van Gogh can show the artist’s disturbed mental state metaphorically in the dark crows if we know about his unstable mental health (what exactly afflicted him is widely debated), depression and subsequent suicide. ‘The Wonder Years’ also works in this manner, as the wall plaques which accompany each painting often directly identify the person, the moment, or the place that gave rise to the work. The strident regionalism of Smither’s art also appears to heighten their appeal. Images in this exhibition are predominantly from New Plymouth and Central Otago, an environment that will have a direct nostalgic impact on many people. The paintings will also appeal ro those with young families, with the images of kids eating, fighting, playing, and pushing their boundaries.

There is no deliberate obtuseness. And while some might find this tedious, these are unashamedly ‘paintings for people’, extremely easy to engage with, to recognize moments from one’s own day to day life. “My whole idea of art was to make paintings for people. And it still is. I’ve done paintings I think people ought to look at because I have a certain attitude towards something– you know, like a political attitude or something. But basically I believe that art is to be seen, to be enjoyed or appreciated or moved by in a way. These are fairly universal subjects.”

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