Lee Smith

There’s just a thin scrim between Lee Smith’s paintings of childhood games and that edge of our adult lives which is haunted by unoccasioned fears and inexplicable awe. His medium-sized works, scaled to fit any tract house, deal almost straightforwardly with the covert activities of adolescents. They have a children’s book clarity, an illustrational purpose: all forms are simplified and rendered in strong colors with clear contours. But a bizarre surreality suffuses the images—the children glow around their edges like irradiated lunar-kinder, and their flesh-tones are red, blue, or green. We think that they’re only involved in playful pastimes, but we’re unsure.

In Blocks and Sticks, 1987, and Blocks, Sticks and Triangle, 1988, four boys on a vast plain are leveraging huge blocks for a feat one of them describes by forming a triangle with his hands. Are they stacking baled hay, planning a fort,or reenacting an ancient miracle—the building of the Great Pyramids? Their skins are green, growing lighter at the edges as in solarized photographs. They seem unreal, which may signify the imaginary realm in which their enterprises are really located. In Listening to the String and Games in the Night, both 1988, the kids are banded together outdoors in the dark. In the former, they’re listening with soup-can telephones to sounds through someone’s brightly-lit open window; in the latter, they’re prowling through the woods, the beams of their flashlights creating funnels of opaque heavy yellow. Their big dog leaps forward at nothing we can see, but something we all know must be out there. These red-bodied boys are involved in surveillance and control. They want to gain access to the unknown and the unsuspecting, to flush out danger while they’re on guard at the perimeter.

In some works, the children seem to have discovered some alchemical powers in themselves. In Land of Gold, 1989, they paint charred rocks in the desert, lining them up across the landscape under streaks of spectral light, which shoot down from dark clouds. Or they dig deep into the ground with ordinary garden tools in Study for the Big Hole, 1989, until a rush of golden light spills up from below. Has one of their flashlights fallen in, have they reached China, or is this an ancient tomb whose neon blue ghost they’ve released and who is now kneeling next to them? Perhaps this exhumation had its spiritual inception in a large work Lee painted in 1986. Called Preparing for Heaven, it’s a scene in a garage in which five glowing red boys lay the corpse of a dog into a box. At the right foreground, a boy wipes tears from his eyes and, at the left, another one prepares a white cross for the grave. A girl outside the entrance brings a bouquet of flowers; another one peers through a window trimmed with a string of Christmas tree lights. The most bizarre note is struck by a boy at the upper right suspended from a sling, his hands poised in a gesture of prayer. Christ’s birth and Christmas time, the Crucifixion, the Entombment, and the Resurrection all assemble synoptically in this East Dallas altarpiece.

Smith’s is a communal male world with its own rites of passage, conducted in clubhouses and backyards. Unlike Eric Fischl’s children, whose emergent sexuality is complicated by the presence of adults, these kids monitor their own complex progress—with no less mystery, but with far less ambiguity. Paradoxically, that lack of ambiguity and the children’s obvious self-absorption seem to alienate them from us even more.

Joan Seeman Robinson