When we first confront Colin Smith’s large paintings, two questions are likely to occur to us simultaneously. The first is, What do representations of events only partly narrated, of clothes hanging in cupboards, and of figures seen from behind or above, have in common? The second is, Is the subject-matter of these paintings, and its identification, something on which we should spend much time?

A likely contemporary reaction is that the second question puts the first in its place. For, once we have been alerted to what we are doing, we shall not want to go on doing it, because, with these paintings, as with paintings in general, their subject-matter does not take us very deep into them. However I am inclined to think that the truth is the other way round. The first question, once it is seriously attended to, takes the sting out of the second. For anyone who looks at these paintings and still tries to doubt the significance of their subject-matter can do so only by taking a very simple-minded view of what subject-matter is, and the odd, nervy range of things that Smith has decided to paint ought to innoculate us against the idea that an artist’s subject-matter is ever something that can be identified in a facile way.

Indeed, if we look at Smith’s paintings for what we can learn from them – and we do well to remember, in the face of recent conceptual tendencies, that looking at paintings for what they have to tell, as opposed to what they have to show, is only one, and certainly not the most profound, way of engaging with them – this is the lesson that they have to teach us. Subject-matter is complex.

Smith regularly paints things to which there is more than meets the eye: though the eye, the eye of someone who has lived in the world, knows what this something extra is.

The following are everyday, every minute, experiences: We see a man walking towards us: we know that he has a back, furthermore a fully clothed back, though the eye registers only his front. We see a woman bend down to pick up a scarf: we know that, a second before, she dropped her scarf, though we were not on the scene to observe the event. It is around such simple experiential truths, and their proper expansion, that Smith constructs his art.

But it is important to recognize, if we are to understand this art, that these truths have been underdescribed. There is a further fact to them. For it is not enough to say that we ‘know’ that the man has a back, or that we ‘know’ that the woman has just dropped her scarf. For what, in each case, is crucial to the experience, the perception, that we have is that this knowledge penetrates it. It fuses with the experience, and then goes on to structure it.

Some philosophers have called this process whereby recollections from the past form a kind of aura around present experience ‘imagination’. Preserving this terminology, we may say that Smith’s art is, in the first instance, an art of the imagination. For what he does is that, in the course of representing objects, he uses paint to stand in for what, in the perception of objects, is achieved by the imagination, or by the aura that surrounds them. It is this trick of substitution that turns what might otherwise seem a paradox in Smith’s art – that, though the invisible is its major theme, the art itself is as visual as any produced to-day – into the most natural thing in the world. The interest of this art is to grasp how the trick is brought off.

In the first place, the cases that I have cited – the man who walks towards us, the woman who picks up her scarf – are not, for all their accessibility, those most strictly relevant to an understanding of the paintings in this exhibition.

For, in the examples that I have used, we are dealing with the very possibility of experience. In other words, we would be completely unable to see the man as having a front if we didn’t allow the imagination to supply us with an experience of his back. It would be impossible for us to see the woman as picking up the scarf if we didn’t allow the imagination to supply us with an experience of her dropping it.

But Smith’s pictorial concerns are less metaphysical. Throughout his work, he has tried to recreate those cases of perceptual experience where it is the associations of life, and not the very structure of the mind, that provide the aura of the experience, the halo, the penumbra that surrounds it.

We see a safari shirt on its hanger, and we sense, not just the back of the shirt, but also the man who, with two fingers, takes a pack of cigarettes out of the breast pocket and casually flips one into his mouth. We see the garish clothes in the cupboard, and we sense, not just the process by which they got there, but also the dyed blonde, who, returning from a rendezvous, lets her dress fall to the ground, and kicks herself free of it.

Staying with the word ‘imagination’ for a moment, we may return the word to its ordinary sense, and say that it is the very specificity of Smith’s imagination that fashions these paintings. It is not just the world that he conjures up: it is a world. It is the very particular world deplored, in many passages of prose and poetry, by the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, for whom it becomes a leitmotif that we no longer live amongst ‘things’, amongst objects often humble in nature but made with skill and invested with sentiment.

Smith’s paintings, for all their empty spaces, are full of suggestions about what has taken their place. These overlifesize paintings provide us, not directly, but indirectly, with the answer to the question raised ironically in the title of one of the most famous prints of the 1950s: Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes to-day’s home so different, so appealing? Sparing us a direct confrontation with the clutter of modern life. Smith instead gets us to fall victim to a trick of scale. For the very largeness of the pictures – or rather their largeness in relation to the size of the objects they represent – serves as an invitation to the senses other than that of sight to move into the pictorial space, and to start to occupy it. We begin to hallucinate what we cannot, what we are not allowed to, see. We hear the rustle of man-made fabrics. We catch the smell of tobacco, deodorant, plywood, synthetic carpet. The absent starts to suffocate us.

In the creation of this pictorial world, one trick is the trick of scale. Another trick is the trick of light.

In nearly all the paintings, the represented objects are polarized between heavy shadows and opalescent highlights, with a broad middle ground taken up by passages of stark, intermediate tones. But there is generally no observable source of illumination to which these effects of light could be ascribed. Nor does the light pass beyond the objects. The background is unaffected: either it is given over to unredeemed darkness, or it emits a kind of neon-like phosphoresence.

The objects that we are allowed to see lie, it seems, in a thin slice of existence, cut off alike from anything in front of them and from anything behind them. Once again, the overall effect is unmistakeable. These objects are as effectively dematerialized as those which we merely hear or smell. Their interest has to depend, like the immediacy of experience, upon something outside themselves, and the challenge – or so it might seem – is to set off and try to track down what this something might be.

But Smith has three tricks in all: a trick of scale, a trick of light, and the trick of paint. And the third trick helps us, in some measure, to overcome what the first two have put within our grasp.

Smith, I have suggested, uses paint to record an effect. He uses it to indicate what the eye draws upon when the world is seen. But he also uses it more directly. He uses it to create a world that encapsulates that which we see.

I have quoted Rilke, and we must observe that the more Rilke became convinced of the extinction of a world to which the things that it contained gave value, the more he felt the value of creating works of art that were themselves such things: Dinggedichte. I believe that there is a similar motivation – though to very different effect, for Smith is not interested in the jewelled, or the rarefied – in the paintings before us. They have been planned as things that fill the very vacuum that they display.

© ESTATE OF RICHARD WOLLHEIM

Chair in Philosophy, University of California at Berkeley