These are tough paintings which show up the extreme fragility of narrative painting, in particular the disjunction between the meaning of the work and its significance for the viewer. Colin Smith’s paintings are seemingly ‘realistic’ in execution and image, logical in the familiar rendering of a ‘scene’ – a man and a woman in a car, two men side by side on an escalator, heads in front of keyboards – but the whole picture never adds up. Unless you, the spectator, concoct a story, adding not only the final clue but the plot as well. What we see in the image is just the threshold of the struggle that ensues: to take an active part in shaping the image to correspond to the world we experience. The more difficult the task the more vivid the aesthetic experience of the work.

Smith is a painter who makes the familiar strange, which brings his strategy close to that of radical film and photography with its pirating of mass media imagery, its capacity to create havoc with the theoretical concerns of art or at least to confuse the issues further. Claustrophobic space, the dark and lengthening shadow, the back turned, the head and face obscured; paint blue, brown and earthy, its surface dragged, thick and heavy on the white. The atmosphere is one of unease and menace, that of night and the darkness inside: the psychological mire of Oshima’s scorching film In the Realm of the Senses, of the savagely simple short story by Alberto Moravia. These works perpetually disrupt the ‘readerly’ narrative of the classic text (film, novel or painting) by specifying the sensory base of process. And it is this thwarting of explanation which takes Colin Smith’s painting beyond realism, bringing it in line not only with the film noir but also the cinema of écriture with its focus on the materiality of practice. Smith attempts to play with codes of representation, of voyeurism and sexuality while not turning his back on the history of his chosen medium and the complexity of problems it embraces. The difference between him and many British figurative contemporary artists is that he is the artist as subject not hero. His iconography is inevitably drawn not only from art but from other experiences which have had as a profound an influence on his thinking: living in New York in the early eighties, American film and new writing, and the theatre, especially Beckett.

‘Love in a space capsule, Thurman called it, hate in Houdini’s trunk. But there was the windshield and the continual movie past the glass. It was good driving into the movie, good the way the weather changed, the way night and day traded off’’ Fast Lanes, Jayne Anne Phillips.[i]

In Picture This a man and a woman stand by a saloon car, the open door cutting the space between them as cleanly as a knife. And it is this space which interests us, not the surroundings which are ambiguous but necessary fields of murky colour, bedding the figures in a space which is more psychic than physical, teasing our minds to the extent of its depth and complexity. Just as the female figure bears a strength and autonomy which deflects the voyeurism of the spectator, so the automobile stands as much more than the contemporary commodity sine qua non; it holds the promise of transcendence, of escape and fulfilment. Though locked in its urbanity, it spins dreams in a comfortless world. While the power of its image is more commonly exploited in film. Smith conflates this code with an older and still resonant convention of painting. The car becomes a ubiquitous surrogate for intimations of the sublime which in the nineteenth century landscapes of Friedrich, Courbet and Munch is expressed in the still vastness of land, sky and water which dwarf the human figure, shown solitary or in pairs and invariably with the back turned from the gaze of the spectator. There is no little irony, recalling Friedrich’s magisterial image of Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, in Smith’s painting Considering the City, where a lone male figure in shirtsleeves, his back towards the viewer, stares silently from the goldfish bowl security of some corporate building to the seductive yet chilling panorama of the night city.

While Smith cloaks the fin de siécle anxieties of the late twentieth century in the banal imagery of urban culture, he does not veil the affinity between a so-called romantic age and a post-industrial: the loss of stability, the fear of change. But he chooses to underscore the threat to identity, to the autonomy of the body, not by appropriating technological weaponry to turn it against itself, but by sticking to a practice which demands not only the working of hand, limb and eye, but an affinity with the stuff of canvas, pigment and varnish. It is no surprise that his paintings are body size. The recent series Wardrobe 1-4 are not only essays in colour and texture, but like the still life genre to which they relate, are contemporary vanitas meditations on transience and mortality. Their dark, slightly lurid colour at the same time brings to mind the ambivalent sexual voyeurism of the films of David Lynch, and recent Peter Greenaway, notably his most complex to date – The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover which raised more than a few hackles for its seeming complicity with the male gaze. It is in this respect that Colin Smith’s painting departs from film: he recognises and exploits painting’s powers of understatement. His works speak through silence, economy of image and of reference; their only luxury the flow of paint whose interference with the sotto voce of a possible narrative tends to defer the exhaustion soon felt with the brat pack adolescent titillation of Eric Fischl or the clever, elaborate pornographic montaging of David Salle. For naked is not all; we recall that Goya painted the Maya clothed as well as unclothed.


Head of Visual Arts, Arts Council of Great Britain