Abstract Critical

Simon Callery and Sam Cornish discuss Richard Smith: Kite Paintings

Installation, Richard Smith: Kite Paintings, Gimpel Fils, courtesy Gimpel Fils

Sam Cornish: What struck me most about the exhibition, particularly the two pieces with the cross in the middle, but the other works as well, was that, despite how much they play with the physical conventions of painting, in terms of the stretcher etc., they remained something which to me was like an image. So, what do I mean by that? I mean that they read instantaneously, they read on a flat plane, as a whole thing, and that part of that instantaneousness was the presence of illusion; particularly with the cross works there was a thing, the cross, that existed in a sequence of twisting illusionistic spaces; and that even the things which are most physical, most outside the conventions of the rectangle, i.e the twisted shape of the works, the protruding bars and the falling string, all felt to me like they were caught up in this singular, illusionistic, instantaneously read ‘thing’, even as it sort exploded onto the wall.

Richard Smith, Double Cross (Green) (D) 1977, acrylic, oil & charcoal on canvas, 47 ¼ x 47 ¼ in/120 x 120 cm

Simon Callery: Yes, we need to understand what you understand when you use the word image. My understanding of the word relates to pictures. I connect it with representational painting, to photography, cinema, television and mass media. That for me is the world of ‘image’. Double Cross didn’t strike me as it struck you – I didn’t see it as an image. Rather, it made me think of the tools used to produce images. The work brought to mind the apparatus of picture-making rather than the picture itself.  The framing devices operating in the paintings reminded me of the iris diaphragm in a camera lens, shifting focus from one point to another as it turns and stops down. 

SCo: I think the difference I would draw there, is that, though they do reference the tools, the vernacular, the elements of which paintings and pictures are made, the crucial bit is that they mimic the effect of images – maybe within a particular pictorial tradition, partly one of Western easel painting and maybe partly one of cinema and the moving image. That they mimic the effect these media have, the kind of confrontation you have with them, seems to me the crucial thing, rather the presence of the nuts and bolts of how a painting or painting is made.

SCa: When you talk about effect I think about impact. From my point of view what is important to recognize is what he has done with painting. In relation to these works it is what he has not done with image that has impact. I find references to how we produce images, to the tools and apparatus of that process and I see how Smith has found ways to incorporate this within a language of painting without resort to depiction or image. So the rotating leaf iris effect and apparent over-laying of one material section of painting with another makes me think of how film cameras work as well as how these paintings work. The sequential green kite paintings literally move close to us and then away, growing and diminishing in both size and scale. Smith is playing that out physically and it is as sequential as frames of film moving through the gate of the projector.

Richard Smith, Double Cross (Grey) (E) 1977, acrylic, oil & charcoal on canvas, 47 ¼ x 47 ¼ in/120 x 120 cm

SCo: Particularly in the case of the two paintings with the crosses, your description of a sequence of images closing in on you or getting closer to you seems to be exactly the opposite of working with the language of painting, its nuts and bolts; instead it is almost exactly to do with the effect of an image, does it not?

SCa: No, not a sequence of images or even the effect of images. What I see is an attempt to incorporate references to the tools of photographic image-making into painting not an attempt to produce another image – everything but the image. I think we are talking about difference in ways of viewing; the way we see a work makes such a difference in how we understand it… And it says a lot about us.

SCo: Well, this is interesting because obviously we have been looking at and describing exactly the same phenomena and noticing all the same phenomena, but I can’t help but think that they work in a particular way, which is very different from how you think they work… To clarify what I said about images; I don’t think they need to be images of something, I don’t think there needs to be a figurative source; that is part of what I mean by the effect, in that they mimic the effect of an image but without figuration…

Richard Smith, Both Halves (A) 1977, acrylic & oil on canvas (2 parts), 47 ¼ x 47 ¼ in/120 x 120 cm & 55 1/8 x 55 1/8 in/140 x 140 cm

SCa: Well this is where it can get confused because they are emphatically what they are physically. They refer to objects made in the world but they are not images of them; they almost are the things they refer to; for example a kite or an iris. For me there is no sense of seeing something being pictured… that is not an experience that these paintings offer me whatsoever.

SCo: An interesting way of developing this might be asking how you see the difference between a distant view of them and what you get from examining them close-up. How do they change, or how do they stay the same?

SCa: A couple of weeks ago I did a tour of lots of shows in the West End and this show was one of them. It actually had a very strong impression as it was very different to the other things I saw that day. I think one of the characteristics that was very different was the way the paintings displayed their physicality. The works were so clearly painted lengths of canvas on the wall with elements that looked like they could have been the traditional wooden stretchers reconfigured. It didn’t seem to me that there was any type of illusion going on here. It was evident what these paintings were made of and that was what your encounter with them was going to be based on…

Installation Richard Smith: Kite Paintings, Gimpel Fils

SCo: And that presumably was something you noticed from a distance? Can I infer that you felt that they remained the same as you got closer to them, that you were just picking up more of the same sort of information?

SCa: No, because some things did change. For instance, when we were standing and looking closely, I noticed the way that coloured string was placed over different parts of the painting created an illusion of a cut or the suggestion that there were separate parts to the surface whereas in actual fact it was one uniform surface. So the illusory element came in when we were looking closely.

Richard Smith, The Pod 1976, acrylic on canvas (4 parts), dimensions: variable

SCo: That is interesting, because for me they work illusionistically from a distance, whereas it seems to you with, at least with noticing these smaller tricks, they work illusionistically only once you start to unpick what you see initially as their emphatic physicality…

SCa: The primary communication was physical and of a material nature. The secondary wave of information up close seemed to play with this physicality – maybe undermining it – or at least suggesting a depth of character.

SCo: I felt they worked best from a distance, I don’t know if you felt that was true?

SCa: They have to do both. If it is the kind of painting which encourages you to move about then it must do both. There is a kind of work that intends to keeps you at a distance but I don’t think these works are aiming to do that. I think they are aiming to draw you in and to make you navigate around them.

SCo: Do you think they are slow works? Or you think the distinction between quick and slow is not an interesting one?

SCa: I think it is a very important one. A lot of artists are driven to make work that aims to grab the attention of the viewer quickly. I think these works do grab attention as they appear idiosyncratic and the colour is strong. The way they reveal themselves is slow as you have to engage and examine the work in different ways as we already mentioned. They are not going to give it all up straightaway and if a painting can do that, it’s good. Perhaps a painting becomes a slow painting when it engages more than just our eye. 

Simon Callery, Cadmium Red Deep Painting Tipped, 2012, Oil, distemper, canvas, wood, aluminium & sash cord, 94 x 78 x 46 cm

SCo: Part of the reason that I wanted to talk about them with you, was that after seeing them for the first time, I saw a show of abstract paintings, which were all on a rectangle; it’s was a show I’d seen a few times before and as soon as I went into it I thought to myself ‘wow look at all these rectangles, look at how they are all just rectangles’. And though I don’t think that is completely a limiting factor on them, it perhaps gave me a glimpse into the mindset behind your way of working. So I’d like to ask you what affinities you see between them and your work, and what things do you see that are very different?

SCa: The main affinity I feel is that the primary means of communication is a physical one. The way that the paintings work on the viewer revolves around their physical qualities instead of what they may depict. A common area seems to be where you go and how far once you start to question and challenge the conventions that govern painting. The rectangle is an obvious convention within painting and moving away from it is a move away from the ambitions of the picture maker. One of the things which is very clear to me is that when you grow aware of the range of conventions you can begin to see where they have not been challenged. Here, the paintings hang on the wall where you would expect to find a picture. He could have gone further and maybe he has done in other works, but what purpose is there for them to be at 140cm to centre, which is the current standard height for a picture? They could have been lower, they could have been higher, they could have been on the floor; those things would have really changed the character of the work immensely. Maybe he didn’t want to do that, maybe the point was he wanted to retain certain elements of traditional picture making and combine them with references to film and image production without the image…

SCo: Do you think my understanding of the works as images as opposed to a physical things may have been prompted or over-determined by the height, by retaining that convention?

SCa: I think that is really going to have a lot of influence since it means you stand in front of them as you do when you are standing in front of a traditional painting. This prioritizes the eye and inevitably it does not encourage you to move around to examine the work in other ways.  If we consider that a central intention of painting has been to find the best way for pictures to communicate an important factor is where you place them. As soon as you start moving the work about or moving it away from the rectangle there is a possibility you can loosen the grip vision has over painting and allow our other senses to come into play. Maybe this is the point where a painting stops being an image.

SCo: For me one major difference is that your works move away from the flat wall, which is not the case in the works in this show; the Smith’s maintain a dominant view, whereas yours undercut that…

Simon Callery, Cadmium Red Deep Painting Tipped, 2012, Oil, distemper, canvas, wood, aluminium & sash cord, 94 x 78 x 46 cm

SCa: Yes, I am very aware of that, especially when I come to photograph my work. I pace about trying to find the one angle which describes the work best and half the time I can’t find it. The painting can only really be absorbed through an accumulation of visual and physical sensings.

SCo: Maybe we could agree that one of the qualities of an image is that it fixes you?

SCa: Yes, I can agree with that. It can fix you and hasn’t that always been the intention? You are rendered passive to receive information. European painting has developed as a means of communication, to record, store and pass on information. I am not sure that is was intended to be a reciprocal relationship. Here I am talking about the early roots of European painting as it developed in the service of Christian iconography and the church…

Richard Smith: Kite Paintings is on at Gimpel Fils until the 12th of January