Consciousness is knitted from the threads of other people’s words and we have learnt to dream like films. Each moment is framed and structured by other real or imagined moments. We live in an echoing forest of resemblances. I enjoy Colin Smith as a painter of resonant images, of pictures that manipulate echoes.
There are plenty of painters who paint as if photography and television had never happened. Their work seems informed by painting alone. There is no harm in that, we have the choice. Others paint as if they had only seen photographs. Paint thin and immaculate aspiring to the state of emulsion.
Smith’s pictures, his placing of figures, their postures, gestures and stance, the environment in which they stand and move, is not photographic but it is cinematic. However, his way of painting, the way he puts the stuff on, owes little to the mechanical means of representation, to photography or film, it owes much to the painterly tradition of Hals, Velazquez of Goya and Manet and to Smith’s old teacher in Cornwall Karl Weschke. He sweeps a highlight across dark wet paint, its movement describes a fold of a shirt or a skirt and thereby serves to suggest the form of a body or a limb. Like Hals or Manet there is a painterly sensuality, an enjoyment of bravura handling.
In what ways like cinema? In this exhibition there are four paintings of people telephoning. In three of the pictures that make up the tryptic Parallel Lines the figures have their backs to us. We cannot see the phone, nor their faces. This is not the stuff of which memorable photographs are made. But in a film the actors may turn away from the camera as we listen to a telephone conversation, their movement and actions confirming, contradicting or hiding the import of what we hear. We watch in the knowledge of what has happened and expectations for the rest of the narrative. We know what is happening.
Something seems to be happening in Smith’s pictures, there appears to be necessity in what the figures are doing, but its nature is never resolved into a certain narrative. What one glimpses, however, in some of the paintings is the machinery of power, the pictures imply a political paranoia. The most obvious example in this exhibition is The Administration of Information. The uniformity of the figures lined up behind VDUs denies critical conscience; nothing about these people suggests they might ever say ‘No’ to the system. Sight of what is on the VDUs is denied us. They are ordering our world of appearances, hidden from us is reality and that reality is power and its machinery of illusion.
In this paranoid reading of Smith’s work the cars in the Dark Car paintings become the transport of the agents of power. We are well prepared for such an attribution by the modern corporate gangster’s limo in a thousand and one movies. This helps to describe the knife edge on which Smith’s paintings work. They must resist being read unambiguously as scenes from real or imagined movies. They could be like favourite cinematic moments and feelings recalled like the kind nostalgic kitsch that infects television retrospective accounts of film and pop music.
It is a common place of the popular movie to portray our social order as ruled by a conspiracy of corrupt people. However, this paranoid vision is made meaningless by being structured by demands of conventional narrative. We know that expectations will be set up and resolved according to the familiar laws of entertainment The conspiracy will be overcome. The true, the young and good-looking triumph. But remove and deny the narrative, as in Smith’s pictures, and the conspiracy vision is disturbingly convincing as a picture of our social order.
As a student Smith once heard and was much taken by a talk by the late B.S. Johnson. He gave me a text by Johnson to read, it begins:
“It is a fact of crucial significance in the history of the novel this century that James Joyce opened the first cinema in Dublin in 1909. Joyce saw very early on that film must usurp some of the perogatives which until then had belonged almost exclusively to the novelist”
Johnson mentions later in his preface to Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs his own use of cinema-like editing “to evoke what the reader knows as film technique”. But cinema-like techniques evoke more than just the formal experience of film. As Smith’s work shows they evoke the imaginative worlds that cinema has created.
The professionalisation of culture since 1945, its division into specialist communities has led to an art separated from imaginative high culture. Much painting and sculpture is trapped in its own administrative discourse, it acts out the logic of art’s institutions. Smith belongs to what seems to me to be an increasing number of artists whose work is informed by cinema, by novels and by poetry.
In this exhibition the most obvious example of the latter, a painting informed by poetry in This Red Rock. We look down on a group of figures in a crowd. How we read the image and its qualities is given direction if we know the picture’s tide This Red Rock and where it comes from.
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Later in the poem we get these lines:
Under the brown fog of winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
These lines from ‘Burial of the Dead’, part 1 of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, suggest a reading of Smith’s painting as a vision of administered existence as a kind of death. The poet and the image maker reflect on and thus transcend the crowd. They are alienated by imaginative art, by the reflective consciousness elaborated in their work. They offer a vision of a moment without future or past, it casts no shadow. The crowd is like dust, it is made of inconsequential differences for consciousness is knitted from the threads of other people’s words and we have learnt to dream like films.
Head of Education , The Tate Gallery.