Jack Smith

Flowers | Kingsland Road

It is not very fashionable in England to produce paintings that are bursting with enjoyment, and so this vibrant exhibition of works by Jack Smith comes as something of a surprise—not for nothing are a group of paintings entitled “Celebrations.” This is even more surprising when one remembers that Smith was perhaps the archetypal Kitchen Sink painter of the ’50s, with his muted, browny-gray renditions of the monotony of everyday life, the stark reality of the angry young man. The pictures here—painted in the past five years—are far removed from the messages and imagery of social realism. Instead Smith has begun to explore painting itself.

An underlying theme in these works is music. Running through these canvases are sound patterns and color chromatics, hints of jazz, elements of brass instruments or organ pipe. Music and the art of composing are explored together with the art of painting, as the visual expression of sound and emotion. Of course, music has a long lineage in abstraction—Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, and in particular in the dynamic flying shards and trapezes of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings—but Smith has imbued them with new life and color. In Sound and Light, Central and Out, 1988, the impact is of light on surface and light breaks through the center of the canvas like a gap in grayer, bleaker silence. Sound and Silence, 1987, while controlled and deliberate, achieves an almost palpable sense of sound vibration. How, it seems to ask, would one have depicted sound itself before one knew it traveled in waves? Like a prism of glass-shattering light, fragmenting the surface and breaking up the elements, so too are revealed the chromatics of music.

Many of the works are carefully arranged into two zones, an act of formal composition which allows for more complex relationships and questions than is at first apparent. Above all, it allows the artist to pose a series of opposites: movement and stasis, sound and silence, depth and surface, rationality and emotion, etc. In Sound of Light (Early One Morning) I, 1988, the kinetic dynamism of the outer panel is posed against the absolute stillness and static form of the square within it: a contrast heightened by the fluid translucent paint within the border panels against the solid opacity of the center.

These exuberant paintings are neither trivial nor glib, but the works of a mature artist. As explorations of color they are complex and sophisticated. Analytical abstraction has found humor and feeling. If some of the earliest works in the exhibition are perhaps rather timid—Sound in Space, 1986, is maybe too carefully executed and lacks the desired verve and dynamism and resolution of relationships—in the later works, hints of imbalance are deliberate, a playful teetering of pivot and seesaw, sound and silence.

Natasha Edwards