The human image has for decades found its feet and fought for its right to express a new sensibility through the artistic medium. Ian Smith, in “Human Image,” his sixth show with the Heiser Gallery in Fortitude Valley, explores just that.
A contemporary modernist, Smith uses the exhibition to reference prior moments in art history, whilst focusing on the relevance of his own present-tense. This creates a satisfying mingling of thoughtful art with everyday Australian moments. Replacing the chambers of Manet’s Olympia with the floral spread of a remarkably suburban setting in Over bed linen by Pillow Talk, or the frolicking of Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre with Australia’s famed beach culture in Sandy feet, gymnast & bathers, Smith builds a strong narrative of the human figure in Australian society.
Smith’s exhibit is both uniquely and intrinsically an Australian one - a local commenting on the highways and byways of his surroundings and its inhabitants. The human figure is a recurring theme in the collection, where Smith somewhat dispassionately portrays a range of ages, demographics and motivations.
Tying this address in seamlessly with the streets and scenes of his hometown has brought out a new and uniquely poignant moment for Smith’s artistic career. The exhibition encapsulates everything from him, naked in a lurid green bathroom, to a woman on her mobile, oblivious to the world around her. Drawing on Australian familiarities such as Woolworths, sandy feet and Pillow Talk, Smith works to establish a common point of reference for his exhibition viewers. Scenes of the everyday, the pharmacist, an office, constitute his unromantic yet richly expressed delineation of the human figure. Varying his exhibition with a variety of angles and approaches, Smith seems almost to be both questioning and seeking to understand the human world he sees around him.
The expressive, emphatic style of each artwork in the collection employs a vivid range of colour and tone. Rich hues and infused visuals balance the frill-free, honest portrayal of Smith’s figures. Far from making the common Baroque-minded mistake of beautifying, Smith represents the truth as directly as he perceives it, in deft, acrylic laden strokes. The meaning he creates might immediately strike its viewer with its simplistic, prosaic nature, yet beneath lies the crux of his message: the complexity in the everyday, the fascinatingly ordinary individual and the human image in its operation, resplendent in the unconscious.
This is where Smith’s crucial modernist sympathies are revealed. “As is often the case in Smith’s work,” says exhibition curator Bruce Heiser, “much of the imagery making up the show references prior experiences and events within the artist’s life, along with referencing points within art history. The paintings are worked up into clear and strong images, reminding the viewer of their own humanity and the shared human experience.”
In Woman in a skirt, one might note this approach most clearly, where pattern, geometry and a palette of nude, orange, green and blue presides. Cubism is lightly touched on - the rotation of the triangular print within the circular skirt involves a layered sense of depth and transition. What is immediately striking is the unusual angle of the piece. The subject’s skirt is clearly a remarkable focus of the artwork, yet it is only thinly veiling her human form, introducing a Picasso-like quality to the image.
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon famously features a woman on the far right of the canvas in a seated position that might be interpreted two ways, thanks to Picasso’s deft painterly brush manoeuvres. Had the prostitute he was depicting been seated with her legs to the left, you could have seen a resemblance between her and Smith’s own unnamed woman. Like “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,”, Smith’s own work highlights space, symmetry and an almost moving vitality. An interesting difference between the two works, however, is the sharp, angular nature of Picasso’s geometrical women to Smith’s sensual, curvaceous subject. Yet in the two examinations of woman and her form, there is a nameless element of calculated vulnerability and, at the same time, detachment. Smith has imbued this interesting homage to a great modernist painter with his own construction of the human image, and how it affects his art.