Colin Smith is a painter of private moments in public places, and of private places exposed to public view. He is a painter of modern moments, depicting a life both lived and filtered through the thousands of hours spent watching movies and TV, of long waits in the no-zones of airport lounges and hotel lobbies.The world Smith paints is largely urban, and made up of invented moments in which insignificant details assume an uncanny significance. Often, it seems, we are trailing his subjects: his viewers become private dicks, all of us up on a case.

People get in and out of parked cars, wait under streetlights with the engine running, make their assignations. They hang around poolsides, sit in chairs in anonymous interiors, work at computer terminals; they make long distance calls from public phone booths. They step onto elevators and make their way out of the picture. We seem close to them, but cannot hear a word they say. They are oblivious to our presence. Unseen, we keep his subjects under a silent and watchful surveillance.

Mostly, Smith’s characters are in transit, on the way from one place to another, trying to make connections. Often, they are waiting, doing nothing, waiting for nothing, going nowhere, stalled. Their lives, as much as we can tell of them – which isn’t much – are both purposeful and empty. Smith paints, I believe, a kind of poignant futility. But it is worth keeping in mind that rather than real people, or characters in a movie, these figures, and the situations and objects Smith records, are painted, fictions in paint. They are cast in painted light, invented out of the painter’s materials. These are things made and unmade by the painter’s brush; they have no inner lives.

Although Smith paints in series, returning to the same subjects and the same motifs again and again (even repainting the same painting over itself, again and again, sometimes even after a gap of years, on a canvas he has already apparently finished) we should not look for a narrative in his work. His paintings are both unfinished stories and stories barely begun. Smith tries to achieve, I think, a kind of impenetrable presence.

The artist, as much as the viewer, is an outsider. Nowhere is this made more clear than in his paintings of open wardrobes, of women’s closets filled with racks of clothes. On one level these are pure invention, and Smith has used the bunched and hanging garments, with their stripes and flowery patterns, their designer colourways, flounces and drapes, as an excuse for a florid and exuberant abstraction. These are exercises in painterliness, derived as much from Delacroix and Manet as from Hopper, as much from Post-Impressionism as from Abstract Expressionism. But, inescapably, these are a male’s view of the interior of women’s wardrobes – although, as the artist warned me on the phone today, they might be wardrobes belonging to a male afficionado of women’s clothes, the closets of a transvestite. He wants us to be wary of our interpretations.

At a certain point, the painter relinquishes control, lets the image go. He does not pretend to possess all its meanings. Instead, he leaves us haunted by our own imaginations, and his, of course, is a kind of trap. The paintings might suggest a narrative, but there is none. They suggest instead the weight of things, the indifference of the world, its ambiguities and resistance to our gaze.

Modern life is a long wait, in which we view one another from a distance, imagining the lives other people lead, picking up clues from their gestures, the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, their public postures. And we none of us know any more exactly where the line is drawn between what we have seen and heard for ourselves, what we ourselves have experienced, and what we have been told, or seen in films, read in a book somewhere.

Colin Smith’s paintings remind me as much of movies and novels and of other paintings as of life itself. The territory he paints is somewhere between Edward Hopper’s United States and the Europe of Wim Wenders’ early movies. His paintings sometimes have the feel of Nicholson Baker’s novella Mezzanine, Tom Wolf’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Kafka’s Amerika, and close-ups from Wender’s Alice In The Cities (which takes us from New York to Wuppertal), or Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Smith brings out the voyeur in us. Voyeurism is curiosity which has lost its innocence, and the painter puts us in its thrall.

©ADRIAN SEARLE

Adrian Searle is an artist, art critic and curator. He currently works as the art critic for “The Guardian” national newspaper.