I visited Richard Smith in his studio on a balmy Spring day last week. Smith has been living in Onrus, near Hermanus, for more than a decade. He works at home, upstairs, and has a view of a pleasing expanse of lawn hemmed in by big bluegum trees. His wife Li, also a painter, has her studio downstairs and they share the space with a dog and two tabby cats. The studio is neatly kept. Smith is an organised kind of a painter – one has the sense here of well-established systems, of working to deadline. He is preparing work for his November show at Ebony, in Cape Town, and going into the critical last 6 weeks. There are canvases on easels, more canvases hanging from the eves, and one lying flat on the floor, which he approaches keenly. “Look at this – I’m very excited about some of the things happening here. ” He points to an area where he’s dragged a big house-painting brush through wet oil paint, leaving a multi-coloured smear in the centre of the canvas.

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He leaps to another canvas leaning on an easel. “This one’s showing potential.” There’s a figure, loosely tacked in with a brush, on a pinkish background, offset by a fierce cadmium yellow.”This one still needs something, I’m going to put it away for a while and then look at it again.” He points to another large canvas – a nude male figure leans on a pedestal in a nascent cityscape. “I killed that one,” he says, exasperated. “It’s overworked. It’s dead!” There’s a subtle difference between the two, but, compared to the pink canvas, the nude somehow lacks urgency. The element of self-surprise – even puzzlement – is Smith’s bread and butter. “Yes,” he says, ” the painterly process is all important. It’s about doing something that isn’t preconceived. I want to find colours I haven’t seen before.” He scrutinizes more of the canvases close up. “These backgrounds are very light, perhaps too light.” There are expanses of light greys, some pink-hued, others blue-grey, made up of interlocking brushstrokes of varying thickness. Daubs and dabs of colour enliven the surface and there are remnants or beginnings of subtle line drawings that have been engraved into the paint. It is from these accretions of paint that ideas emerge, and the content of the painting begins to reveal itself. The areas where paint collides are like fields of energy from which ideas sprout. They blossom or are ploughed back into the field to emerge later.

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We don’t talk much about the content of the painting, as if the question is somehow invasive. At times, Smith will even deny that he’s responsible for imagery. He points to a fish flipping its way onto a canvas. “Look at that fish, I don’t know how it got there or what it’s going to do.” Fair enough, the likes of Picasso and T S Eliot were similarly reluctant to expound on their imagery. Many painters view painting as an autonomous language – to think that painting can be explained in terms other than its own is to miss the point. And these paintings, which you could call “figurative,” are deeply attached to a tenet of much abstract painting: that the act of painting is itself the content of the painting. This way of working is as much a journey into uncharted realms as it is a desire on Smith’s part to subvert his exceptional ability to articulate objects and ideas. He is that rare artist who can draw – on command – what he pleases: A rhino, a dog, a Greek temple, whatever. The current procedure subverts the temptation to easily knock out pictures. The intent is to avoid formulas. ” Lots of artists who are commercially successful get stuck in a formulaic way of doing things. When that happens, you’re dead.” But he acknowledges that professional painters are subject to the whims and fancies of market forces. And despite the dogged example of thwarted early modernists like Cezanne, most painters have pretty fragile egos. “Frankly,” says Smith, “we actually do need the recognition that sales give us.”

Death of Sardanapalus (detail)

Death of Sardanapalus (detail)

Smith admires R B Kitaj, as well as the Portuguese artist Paula Rego, both consumate draftspeople with a potent ability to express complex and mysterious stories. And he has a favourite painting: Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapulus, that great heaving drama of sex and death. Although Smith is not given to angst, there are some heavier, somber paintings emerging.

Smith’s new show is titled ” Music and no music.” Smith certainly plays music, and he listens widely to music while painting. The sound of painting is the sound of a bristle brush on canvas, footsteps going back and forth, sharp intakes of air, sighs of despondency. But that’s not what he’s talking about. The music is the sound of serendipity, the state of joyous flow that brings things into being.”How important is Art, really?,” he asks “there’s this whole world of galleries, international art fairs and so on, all manufacturing importance, telling us how important Art is, but at the end of the day, a lot of it is fashion and propaganda.” Smith has got beyond all that now – it doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is to make the music.

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c  Carl Becker  September 2015