Catalogue essay for Ray Smith’s exhibition at the Concourse Gallery in the Barbican Centre, London October 1997. Gill Hedley is a writer, an independent curator and a consultant on contemporary visual arts. Ray Smithartist
So, flower paintings.
Apart from a few attempts as a student at describing intimations of mortality in seventeenth century Holland or Charles Rennie Mackintosh's watercolours from Walberswick and Lindisfarne, I am unfamiliar with the notion of writing about flower paintings. Under the present circumstances, this seems no bad thing.
Two ideas have set themselves in my mind and repeated themselves, image and lyrics, over again. First and strongest is a stone carving of Sargon, an Assyrian king, dated c.710 BC, in the British Museum. The other echo lies in the song Strange Fruit, written by Billie Holiday:
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
The song is a memorial to the lynching of blacks in the southern States and acts as no direct guide: these paintings are not
political, angry or elegiac. They are not eco-banners, either, and their
strange fruit are not warnings against pollution
Yet both the Assyrian king and Billie Holiday have been a help to me. The hieratic nature of both the function and content of the sculpture is counterbalanced by a strong decorative impact and the jaunty thrust of the warrior's beard was the precise rhyme of pattern that caused a link to form in my memory. I mentioned this to Ray Smith (he had brought Saddam Hussein up in idle conversation) and the link formed a chain.
A favourite image of his is a stone panel from the palace of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, c.700 BC, also in the British Museum, in which a dense pattern of bulrushes in bas relief gives an elegant and formal framework, at the same creating a clear and realistic picture of a swampy landscape.
Bulrushes are physically tough (listen to the name) and they also help recall childhood tales of Moses and the Egyptian princess, or, most strongly for me, Midas and his asses' ears, whispered in sibilant gossip.
Billie Holiday, in her
pastoral scene of the gallant South, has created both a metaphorical landscape and one where beauty and
cruelty blossom side by side.
All painting is simple metaphor, too, and in this series we see extruded thermo-plastic bloom before our eyes. These paintings are of flowers that we create ourselves from our own well-stocked seed catalogue of images needing only hints and nudges in the form of gorgeous colour and geometric forms.
The titles of the paintings are taken directly from mathematics, where terms with which we are familiar, from botany, music, sex or more banal concerns, take on a new and complex meaning. Familiarity with the everyday meaning, however, suggests that we might begin to understand the area of mathematics concerned: rose petal curves, for instance; harmonic sequence or wallpaper pattern; branch and rigid body.
The paintings act as a thesaurus, containing a newly found and clear vocabulary of contemporary hieroglyphs. Unlike the sacred carved texts of ancient Egypt, each familiar shape is like a syllable so that different meanings arise from combinations, configuration or colouring. So, a blue pole surmounted by a tall ellipse against a yellow sky may suggest a Californian palm while the same shape, but now black and pink and floating free in a milky sky with a vapour trail of splattered paint, may evoke a launching rocket.
The repetition within the series (there are no more than three of each configuration and no more than four explicit colours in each work) gives it an exploratory range and provides a growing confidence that the language is a simple, universal and expressive one. We pick up the rhythm and inflections as we work along the curved line of images, each paced by white pauses; each has its own sounds but a harmonic sequence is made plain. Ellipse and stalk, leaf and pole, follow lattice and glaze.
An ellipse* expresses many things: peas in a pod, corn on the cob, asses' ears, palm fronds, feathers, willows, pampas, petals, leaves, fingers, blades of grass or steel, shields, wounds, slices, blisters and openings. As the mathematical terms appear to explain while enclosing sophisticated concepts, so the paintings give us simple diagrams yet hold within their flags and flowers a richness of meaning or possible interpretation.
Take the word cicatrice. Perhaps Billie Holiday's song triggered ideas of burnt skin and lush trees, conjuring up something that sounds like a relative of the locust but means a scar over a healed wound, either in the flesh or on the bark of a tree. It makes the noise of an insect heard in the tropics but means two other and differing things. A scar is a scar is a scar, but on a human body it implies pain, violence or romantic heroism. In botany, it suggests grafting or lopping for the health or manipulation of the plant.
Rediscovery of the Assyrian bas relief led Ray Smith to show me a group of tiles that he designed in 1988 based on beautiful and stark black and white botanical photographs by Klaus Bossefeldt, shortly after the First World War. (I later realised that I had been looking at Bossefeldt's image of the tendrils of a pumpkin throughout April on my kitchen calendar).
Botanical measure and symmetry have been crucial in the creation of this series of biomorphic paintings. The deep white gesso frames, with moulding designed by the artist, add to the notion of boxed specimens but fulfil an aesthetic function of allowing the surface of each work to breathe, emphasising depth.
The surfaces are complex, with paint used both as profound colour and as a physical, three dimensional presence.
With the apparently simple act of weaving acrylic paint on a subtly painted surface, a kind of bas relief is made. Forms derived from geometry are created, and experimentally grafted, as stencils on a computer then reinterpreted on canvas through a technique that Ray Smith first used in 1973.
Dunn & Co, 1973, is a series of small canvases covered with a mesh of paint mimicking and mocking the weave of tweed in which a gentlemen's tailor might specialise. Some have raised and woven strands of paint and others are like shadows with the same colour and pattern painted flat on to the canvas.
Frontier, 1973-4, took the concept and the wit a stride further with a mesh of black paint, about eighteen inches square, replacing the weave at the centre of a large, plain black canvas exposing, through its interlacing, the central cross of the wooden stretcher. It is as if a microscope has been trained on the warp and woof of the canvas so that the painting becomes an examination and reiteration of the nature of painted canvas.
The present series is surely the logical culmination of those ideas, but with added layers. The additions are of sensuality but also of an extended vocabulary. Although the flower paintings arc about the nature of painting, they are an object lesson in ways of painting nature. They are metaphorical, visually punning and technically innovative.
The sensuality is expressed in several ways not least the traditional manner in which layers of opaque paint (that is, with added white) are floated over with glazes of transparent paint, either to enhance or, through contrast, to create another colour. This creates a depth and subtlety of colour on which is laid the lengths of acrylic, first in outline and then as containers for a woven mesh. Each shape - ellipse, line, oval or triangle - stands proud of the canvas and is filled with a thick weave of interlacing paint. This is tough and gives a feeling of strength, sometimes speaking of chains, sometimes of raffia and baskets, reminding us that it is pulling the underlying weave of the canvas to the fore, putting it under the microscope. Where is the surface, what is depth or space and which is the natural material? The canvas is material woven from a plant but the paint comes from a lab.
The pattern of the web is not regular and sometimes the tails of paint are left modestly curled while others poke perkily out. There is movement within the whole series but within individual works -and these are all individual - either the form of the weaving or the feathering of some surfaces adds energy. Each pigment is differently formulated and they bleed in their own ways. In some cases, when the weave is still wet, Ray Smith uses a water spray at a distance, causing the top layer to sheer away, splattering and seeping.
The colour of the extruded paint is much more direct than that applied to the canvas. It is rich and juicy, sometimes pure,
sometimes streaked with contrasts and rainbows. Ray Smith talks of prunes that have wrinkled in the sun and of berry stains;
Kardomah coffee bar colours. Some pure colour combinations seem to place us in full sunlight while others have their
own shadows passing across.
Above all, there seems to be a new heraldry created here. Just as the medieval visual lexicon included
rules of tincture
that replaced natural gold with yellow, blood on skin with scarlet crosses and ermine with black dashes on white, so a modern
Somerset Pursuivant has devised an iconic shorthand that calls up exotic blooms, strange fruits, (lags, parades, traffic lights,
rocket launches and inflammations.
So, flower paintings. But clearly not a simple exercise in challenging the Barbican's Conservatory on home ground. Is it a
garden reinterpreted by a townie living in a Somerset village? Or transplanting his view of nature to the Concourse Gallery's
white box? Nothing of the sort, I would say, although Ray Smith talks of a mixture of
factory chimneys and flowers in the wind
with romantic irony.
The first time that I saw Ray Smith's work in any quantity was in the exhibition As of Now, in 1985. One wall of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, had been papered with a photographic mural depicting a sylvan scene. Hung on it (where a cafe menu might have been expected) was an exquisitely painted version of the exact small area that the frame and simulacrum covered. Needless to say, Ray Smith's painting was more beautiful, tangible and expressive than the blown-up photograph had ever aspired to be.
*Ellipse - a figure produced by the section of one branch of a right circular cone by a plane passing obliquely and failing to meet the other branch; Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1972