When Colin Smith paints figures they usually face away from us, as in parallel lines and this Red Rock both 1989. They are anonymous backs, dressed in the same neat nondescript conventional way. For example the shirt of the male figure and the blouse of the female figure that flank the central figure in Parallel lines, are both white. The male and female couple in Night Drive 1989 also wear white. Similarly the woman Waiting to leave by the Automobile , just as the man on Cypress Avenue and the men Considering the City wear white shirts(all 1990).the six male figures in The administration of information1988also wear white shirts. They all look the same, a homogeneity reinforced by repetition, a typical Smith comment on the tendency to standardization, uniformity and conformity in modern society. Smith is an acute social observer, but not just of surface appearances. For he uses them to convey the depression-not simply a transient kind, but a chronic condition-that has been associated with modernity.
When smith’s figures turn toward us as in Untitled 1998 work of a woman telephoning (she also wears a white blouse) or the 1990 Painting Crossing a square (no doubt they have the de rigueur white shirts on under their de rigueur raincoats), their faces are in shadow. They seem introspective, but they are probably downcast. In Dark Car 111 1988 the male figures- twins wearing the same dark tie white shits and dark jackets- are virtually headless. They are differentiated only by the fact that ones sits behind the driving wheel the other does not.
`In his new paintings Smith has gotten rid of the figures altogether. He shows us only their clothes, close together in the narrow rectangle of the closet space. (No doubt the clothes are surrogate figures, and no doubt they signal that all we ever knew about Smith’s figures was the clothes they wore, which does and does not tell us something about them.)
But these are not the everyday inexpensive street clothes we saw in the earlier paintings, clothes that in their deliberate dullness seem intended not to call attention to their wearer. Rather these are more personal more expressive, loudly coloured clothes- stripes and checks and brightly coloured floral patterns. Their yellow red, blue orange, violet brown, sharply contrast with the sombre sober public clothing. Do the figures ever really wear these lively comparatively lyric outfits? They probably do when they are going out on the town for a good time or on vacation. Thus contrasting the faceless figures with the flashy almost erotic looking clothing, we realize that Smith has given us modern man’s split personality, his split consciousness of himself.
Does the clothing kept hidden in the closet except for special occasions really signal nonconformity, rebellion, difference, an altered state of consciousness? Not exactly, for it is as much a social façade as the everyday raincoat, suit jacket, white shirt or blouse. It is equally anonymous although it conveys ‘Personality” Whether in public space or private space, we conform to social expectations. How we dress ourselves is a matter of social consensus, and internalized control. The seeming license of the private clothing is a s unconventional as the discretion of the public clothing.
Smith shows us figure in intimate personal relationship- walking close together on the street, standing close together next to an automobile, seated close together in that Automobile, talking on the telephone- but not emotionally connecting. Interiority is signaled but the inertness and expressionless ness of the figures contradicts it. Even more telling Smith makes the spectator a protagonist in the scene. We are as close to the figures as they are to ach other-close enough to see the creases and shadows on their clothing. “Also looking at them from the back, when they think they are alone, we see them in all their vulnerability and loneliness. Yet it does not matter we do not know anything essential about them, we do not know what they are thinking and feeling however much we believe we may sense it. They must after all have inner lives and it must show something of itself in their appearance-their clothes. Even their in expressivity must tell us something about it. Nonetheless there is a barrier of silence between us- even when they seem to be communicating. They blend into the crowd, but even when he pulls them out of it picturing them in intimate relationship or by themselves in a moment of contemplation they remain ineffable, depersonalized and remote as they are in the crowd.
The clothes in the Closet give us the most intimate look at their private moments that we are likely to have. A closet is a very private place, indeed, a symbol of interior space. An open closet is an invitation to intimacy. While the clothes kept in it are meant for public use, clothes in general have profoundly important private meanings for the person who chooses and wears them. Indeed they are a personal statement, as we say, not only communicating out attitude to the world, but to ourselves. To my mind the intense unconscious investment we make in clothes is indicated by the extraordinary painterliness with which Smith renders them. Indeed I would venture to say that this painterly intensity
Which gives the flimsy clothes a remarkable density of being, is the real subject matter of his new Pictures.
Smith has always been a master of the thickly painted dramatic surface, but in the closet [paintings he has outdone himself. It is as though all expression that is repressed in the stasis of the scene, is concentrated in the almost violent fluidity of the painterliness. It communicates, as the clothes do not really do. The painterliness contradicts their flat affect, for all their colorfulness the expressivity is stereotyped which is no doubt symbolic of the people who wear them. Smith’s almost manic painterliness shows us the emotional turbulence hidden behind the façade of facelessness. It shows the crazed inner lives of apparently normal-normally unhappy-people.
Is Smith commenting on British society, where one is supposed to keep ones feelings hidden? (No doubt that makes them all the more insane). Is Smiths angry painterliness his personal revolt against that repressive society? Does it express his sense of outrage at the lives of quiet desperation as Thoreau called it, most people live-until explosively act out their feelings? Does Smith’s painterliness signal that as well? All of this, and no doubt more is implicit in his remarkable painterliness. The psychological realism of it’s abstract expressiveness shatters the socially realistic façade of his scenes.
© DONALD KUSPIT
Professor of Art History and Philosophy NYC