Mr Smith and friends

Down here in the deep South I met an artist called Richard Smith. We found that we both owned Martin acoustic guitars, and we started playing together and called ourselves The Pencilmen , for obvious reasons. Back in the days, Smith had been a cartoonist of some standing, working for the Rand Daily Mail and the Sunday Times. Sometime in the 1980s though, the smell of linseed oil proved irresistable, and he picked up the brush. He walked out of the graphic world into a richly coloured canvas, where he made landscapes with densely applied impasto. At the Cite in Paris, Smith took stock and his work shifted, resulting in large charcoal drawings of heads, beautifully done.

In between exploring obscure Bob Dylan songs, Smith has been trying to reconnect with his lost, somewhat repressed inner cartoonist. The big portraits often depicted people in dreamlike states. A grid was supermiposed, and on this grid were placed small icons – bits of torn up paintings, coloured dots,  airborne birds. This moved the head back from the picture plane, as if foregrounding fragments of the inner space of the subject. Given the size of these works, the effect was often imposing and even sombre. But Smith has a sense of humour that will not be denied. He started drawing on large grids, this time wihout the monumental heads. The new drawings are a rogues gallery of characters and situations from a lifetime of observation, rendered by a master of the craft.

Understanding Philip Guston. Oil on board.30x30cm

And out of the drawings there is a series of small oils. They have the  inventiveness of a Philip Guston or Robert Hodgins, where the paint itself guides the painter into obscure (and wicked) realms of memory and association. Rediscovering his levity has led Smith into a seam that promises great riches. Go and see his show. It is at Artspace, 142 Jan Smuts Ave, Joburg. Until 7 June.

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