The Private Mystique of Robert Smith
`FIRST," says Scottish artist Robert Smith, "there's the word. The title exists first."
Such an approach to painting is unusual. Most titles surely come from pictures rather than the other way round. For the viewer of his small images, knowledge of this order in his procedures gives the names a significance that can't be ignored. A dialogue between imagery and words is set up.
Looking at "Proceeding Carefully," you search for connections, signs, and little indications. Some are easier to find than others. Directive forces are signaled partly by means of arrows. Because they take the eye from below an incisively straight horizon line to above it, they seem concerned with movements into, out of, and through elements of either earth and sky or, more likely, sea and sky. (Isn't that a hint of a lighthouse on the horizon?)
The arrows - borrowed visual-cliche symbols of our times - command: "This way and that!" Other subtler movements and marks angling across the textured zone of this rectangular surface suggest rays, penetrations of energy, and trajectories. The title "Proceeding Carefully" suggests driving, but the large atmospheric space of this picture moves things into other realms. At the same time the title could be a description of a life motivation - Bob Smith's perhaps?
Smith is not a rash, brash man. Nor does his art, intimate in size, universal in scale, rush gesturally into life and dazzle dramatically. He is, however, intensely serious about his art. He describes his work as "modest according to my means" - but his "means" are not simply a matter of finance, or even of limited time and studio space, but also of "philosophy," of choosing.
He views the small size of almost all his work as a "self-imposed discipline," although he points out that in his student days he did explore "large volume and energy" in 32-foot murals and stained glass windows 8 by 6 feet. Disciplined he certainly is, painting "at 1, 2, and 3 in the morning, and at weekends" while following a career as a teacher of art and design that has finally raised him to assistant principal at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret College. (He retires next spring: New freedoms loom.)
Amateurism is far from being the result of so many years of constraints. Though he calls himself a "slow painter" and counts his total works to date as "hardly 500," there are a great many potential artists who have allowed themselves to be defeated by the demands of earning a living to the degree that either they become mere amateurs or virtually stop painting altogether.
Smith finds an encouraging parallel for his own experience in the small works that Emil Nolde painted in utter secrecy while branded and outlawed by the Nazis; he makes this comparison not without a certain irony, however, since even the bureaucratic pressures of an educational institution can hardly amount to actual fascism. But secrecy for Smith is more a matter of choice. He enjoys the loneliness of making art. "Nobody gets into my studio. No, indeed. It's the one private space I've got." He agrees wi th the notion that an artist works best when he is free from the expectation of others; he must follow his own line of light. He even envisages an ideal context where "a man or a woman might sing and not be worried if there were no audience - or applause."
Nevertheless, Bob Smith is a realist. He is more than happy to have opportunities to exhibit and sell. And he doesn't object to critical attention, though he is not the kind to look for it. He enjoys the fact that his paintings take on a life of their own in the homes and imaginations of others. He knows that a picture is ready for the outside world when he is satisfied that the painting itself comes close to his original concept.
In criticisms of his work, a comparison with Paul Klee almost inevitably surfaces. He doesn't hide his love of Klee's work. Early on, a post-graduateship made it possible for him to study Klee's work first hand, in Basel, Switzerland. His father gave him a present of Klee's pedagogical notebook. Quite clearly the young Smith was overwhelmed with an admiration for Klee as a man and an artist - as well as a poet and musician, a teacher, and a survivor. But, in an art world that expects an artist to totally
reinvent his visual language in order to separate himself from all others, Smith's marks, signs, pictorial organization, intimately cosmic scale, even the sensitive mystique of his secrecy, really do owe a great deal to Paul Klee. So do his horizontal striations, which are like lines of music. This likeness, which goes beyond the superficial, is disturbing because it prompts the question: Had Smith had greater scope and time for his art, wouldn't he have freed himself into a clearer independence?
Smith readily points out that his works cannot justly be described as either clones or minor versions of Klee's. He says, "If you're attempting any new philosophy and you abandon that which went before, then you're foolish." He compares the effect of his "great bond and affection" for Klee to "the smell of heather on your clothes if you walk through it. That's no bad thing."
In fact, it may be that Smith sees himself as developing within a concept of "the artist" that goes back to the pre-Renaissance. Medieval artist-craftsmen did not have this burning urge for distinct individuality that we almost take for granted today. They acquired their craft - their trade - by apprenticeship, and a large part of that was deeply concerned with learning the physical aspects of making paintings.
Talking to Robert Smith is to discover that he is also no spontaneous wielder of a dancing brush. Instead he is painstaking, exhaustive; and his final images arrive only after a scrupulous, lengthy process of craftsmanship. He first puts down a gesso ground on a board, burnishes it, and begins his first "underground painting," layer upon layer, repeatedly sanded to get a "mutton-fat jade" finish, a kind of eggshell luster that looks as if an impression would be left in it if touched. What follow are thin
oil colors washed over and soaked, glazes of pure oil, colors transparently laid over each other. Linear marks, "intimate drawing," are scratched or etched through this surface.
Long waiting and long working arrive eventually at a final smoothing down. The textural result of all this is, indeed, something that looks highly worked. It appears as if the ages have both built up and reduced it, worn it down, left deep marks, textures - almost memories - embedded in its polished surface. Often the central rectangular image is framed by a border similar in surface to that of the board itself. Smith's work both reveals and hides its processes.
Lately there is a greater freedom discernable, a brighter range of colors, and an apparently swifter application of them so that they float visually above his habitual almost-geological surfaces.
"Between Wind and Wall" displays some of this more optical energy. And once again the title is entirely apt. Smith says that these words are a Scottish saying - though I have yet to meet another Scot who has heard of them! - referring to being caught in an awkward place where one thing seems to offer an escape from another, but doesn't. To study this picture with "wind" (invisible) and "wall" (solid) in mind, and a slight sense of insecurity about some possible space between the two, is to find something
fresh about the possibility of painting.