John Firth-Smith - 2009
29 January 2009
John Firth-Smith, 2005
4 June 2005
John Firth-Smith 2003
29 May 2003
John Firth-Smith - 2009
29 January 2009
Painting today is such a confused and messy business in every part of the world that it is easy to forget how doctrinaire artists were in the early 1970s. Clement Greenberg’s gospel of ever-greater flatness and the rejection of theatricality, continued to exert a powerful influence on those painters who aspired to the condition we now call ‘cutting-edge’.
It was late in the day in
The young John Firth-Smith was not included in The Field. In
Firth-Smith likes viewers to know how a painting has been put together, and makes no attempt to tidy up his canvases. The residual rough edges and sheer physicality of his work generates a large part of its appeal. This method comes into its own when the artist works on a grander scale. A canvas of three or four metres in length takes on a monumental dimension: it is almost as though we are looking at a weathered wall, the rusty hull of a tanker, or some vast nocturnal panorama of the ocean.
Firth-Smith is comfortable with such metaphors, and could add many others to the list of associations that his work generates. Water is always his base element. He is a yachtsman on weekends, and has nurtured a life-long passion for boats. The impressions he gleans from his excursions on
There is almost always an imaginary journey in a typical painting by Firth-Smith. We trace a line as it curves and loops, plotting a course over an expanse of paint packed hard with a palette knife, or combed into waves and ripples. It plots the journey from shore to sea, but also the creative journey from the blank canvas to the finished work. […]
Some of Firth-Smith’s works are like navigation charts, some suggest the figures made from drawing lines between stars in the constellations. At times we seem to be gazing into the heavens, at others we are peering into the depths of the ocean. One cannot be certain whether the rectangular shapes in paintings […], are to be read as solid columns, shimmering beams of light, or slots carved in space. In many pictures there is an alternation between microcosm and macrocosm: we could be looking at the stars, or into a small crystal. A spiral form may be inspired by a photograph of spiral nebulae, but Firth-Smith will also refer to the spirals in shells, the annular rings in a log, or the grain in a swan-off tusk.
To understand the breadth of the artist’s interests, it is necessary to see the journals and scrapbooks he has put together over many years. They are part-diary and part-wunderkammer; repositories of drawings and paintings, photographs, newspaper clippings maps and diagrams. One book records the months spent in a wintry
“Standing in a boat at night,” he says, “you look down, it’s pitch black, in the depths you see things that look like a comet. This phosphorescence, things moving, it’s a constellation under the ocean, a milky way, a huge trail of diamonds.” The same might be said about one of firth-Smith’s paintings, with the result that one begins to perceive such a bewildering multiplication of references that it makes his work seem more rather than less abstract. Such a thought is perfectly consistent with the artist’s own view that painting is essentially to do with transformation or metamorphosis.
It would be too crude therefore to say that Firth-Smith is inspired by ships or by the ocean. He may be inspired by the sight of a ship seen from a distance, in dim, misty light; or by the way moonlight plays on the surface of the water. He is fascinated that a painted hull can look opaque from a distance, only to become a scratched, tattered mess up close. He likes the patterns and textures formed by the barnacles and scum found clinging to the bottom of a boat when it is dry-docked for cleaning. He draws on hazy memories of objects seen in museums, or in the pages of old books.
Yet such things are merely the catalysts for Firth-Smith’s creative processes. When he says “I want painting to get beyond the look of things,” he is expressing the fundamental ambition of every abstract artist – to break way from the tyranny of appearances and create an image or an object that has its own indomitable presence. When he says: “It isn’t really the harbour that interests me, it’s the properties of the water itself”, he is admitting that visual stimuli almost always have some source in the physical world. In detaching such properties from their origins, the artist opens the door to numerous associations, with the only limit being the capacity of the viewer’s imagination.
At their furthest reaches this has led some to discern a cosmic, transcendental ambition in Firth-Smith’s world. Terence Maloon once compared his spiral forms to Van Gough’s Starry Night, while a series of paintings from the early 1980s were self-conscious meditations on the processes of time. Glimpses of infinity or eternity may be found in the largest canvases or the smallest works on paper.
Firth-Smith once told an interviewer: “What I’m trying to do is think of some bigger thing, which is that here we all are on a planet which goes round the sun and we’re not here very long.” This ‘bigger thing’ is the same thought that niggles away at every dedicated artist as they ply their trade in the solitude of the studio. Paintings are driven by intimations of morality, constructed from the flotsam and jetsam of experience. The feeling is the same whether it arises on a sunny day in
John McDonald, 2006
Exhibition opening: Thursday 29 January 2009
Exhibition dates: 29 January – 21 February 2009
Gallery hours: Tuesday - Friday 10am - 6pm, Saturday 11am - 6pm