Gemma Smith

The simplicity of Gemma Smith’s work is deceptive. Many of her recent paintings hide other paintings beneath them, evidence of her past attempts and continuing perfectionism. One gets the sense that if you peeled back this painted skin, layer by layer, you could come to understand the intricacies of her opaque work. Rather than mar one of her canvases, however, Artist Profile sat down with Smith and had the artist strip back the layers of her oeuvre as she prepared for her touring survey show.

How would you describe your art practice to a stranger?
I make abstract paintings … occasionally sculptures but everything has circled around painting, and colour, to the exclusion of everything else really, for the past decade.

Let’s go back a while. Tell me about your early years.
I graduated from Sydney College in 1999. I showed in artist-run spaces for almost a decade before my first commercial show. Some of the first shows that really mattered to me, and still do to this day, were at Gallery 19, Imperial Slacks, and Melbourne’s Penthouse and Pavement. I had time to experiment with both making art and shows before regular commercial exhibitions.

So what did you do for work?
I worked as a gallery attendant at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA). I’d stare at other artist’s work for seven hours a day, and stare at other people staring at art, as well. And I think that had quite a big influence on the way I was thinking about work at the time.

How so?
My early sculptures, my ‘Adaptables’ (2004-2008), were flat, made from aircraft plywood, and had hinges. They were basically about the size of a newspaper and they were participatory, so punters could manoeuvre them into different positions. I was really wanting people to actually be in the headspace of the work; I wanted to engage them deeper than just looking and then looking away. They were often shown in relation to paintings, and would provide another way into the work. They were also a response to the difficulty I was having with the point of completion, of finishing paintings, at the time.

Finishing paintings?
Yes. So, for example, each new painting began with a blank stretcher, and I had endless possibilities for the work. And each time I placed paint down, it moved a step closer to completion, and there were fewer possibilities for the work. At the completion of the painting, it became closed up. The ‘Adaptables’ can be situated in a multitude of positions – so the point at which I finished making them was the point at which their compositional possibilities began. Put another way, they were paintings that never had to take a final form – their compositions could be reworked endlessly by anyone.

So how do you know when one of your more conventional flat paintings is finally finished?
There is just so much chance. For instance, with my recent paintings, such as Zero (2016), the process is such that I am only happy with approximately one in ten compositions. It’s important for me that it’s not easy – so there are many works that are painted over, buried beneath paintings that end up in shows.

Let’s cut forward a little bit. How would you describe the artistic point that you are at, presently?
Right now, I’m working through very subtle, nuanced shifts in colour. My most recent paintings, my ‘Threshold’ works (2017 to the present), are very pale and attempt to use barely any colour. I add the smallest amount of pigment that I think will be perceptible and then spread it out as if it were wet cement, trying to eliminate the brushstrokes. I repeat this over six or so layers – increasing or decreasing the amount of pigment in each area so as to balance the work compositionally over the whole canvas. Sometimes when I walk into my studio, in the morning, I think they’re too pale, and then after two or three hours I wonder whether they are too dark, too strong, or too easy.

You studied at Parsons School of Design in New York and looked at colour theory there. How did that affect your understanding?
I took a summer course there in 2005. It was a very practical course and the thing that has stayed with me was when the instructor said ‘the only way you can really learn colour is to work with it’.

Your giant painting, Triple Tangle (2018), is in the entrance of the MCA. Can you tell me about that commission and how your approach changed with painting straight onto the museum’s wall?
When the MCA invited me to make a painting that was temporary, I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to bring my studio practice and processes to the gallery’ – that is, intuition and trial and error. I started making the underpainting with a very large brush, and it allowed me to respond to the site, in the moment. I then used this freeform underpainting to provide a structure for the final tangled composition. I thickened up the lines with the help of an assistant trained in signwriting, using opaque overpainting. I essentially made the painting three times. Initially, I painted my lines ten centimetres thick and it didn’t work in the space – they were too spindly – and then I remade the entire work at twelve centimetres – they weren’t weighty enough – and then I did it again at thirteen centimetres, and it was just right.

So you’re not a perfectionist?
[Laughs] No – never!

I guess life is a full circle, as you’ve returned to the MCA once again to people-watch.
That was so funny. Having been a gallery attendant to then getting a bucket of paint and splashing it all on the wall.

Aside from the MCA commission, what would you point to as your proudest moment?
Painting the ceiling of the Brisbane Supreme Court and District Court building (in 2012) was a really big achievement. The other commissioned artists were Sally Gabori and Yayoi Kusama – so it was really special, an honour to be in the company of female painters that I respect so much.

Do you remember any of the reactions to your work at the court?
What I liked was the honesty, because it wasn’t in the gallery context (the Supreme Court was one big construction site, at the time). There were both positive and negative responses, usually extreme. I remember one of the worker-guys said, ‘Excuse me, is that your work? I could have fuckin’ done that by fuckin’ accident’. That’s still one of my favourite reactions.

Looking at your works, I see the trappings of twentieth-century high-modernist abstraction. Do you ever wonder if you were born in the wrong era?
No, of course not. While I am interested in figures like those you probably have in mind, I relate to a really diverse range of artists. There are still so many possibilities, even for abstraction.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 46, 2019

Gemma Smith: Noon
7 March – 9 April 2020
Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney


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