New York

Cary Smith

Koury Wingate

Cary Smith’s seemingly minimalist paintings differ subtly from the mainstream model in both undercurrent and appearance; to look at Smith’s work is to be inaugurated into the world of the symbol: abstract, diffuse, and potent. Though Smith’s paintings are based on the rich yet austerely symmetrical designs of early Americana, in his hands they become separated from the folk culture of which they were originally a part. Smith lifts his patterns from the world of the usable, culturally embedded object and inserts them into the abstruse world of art, yet his work is not conceptual in the Duchampian manner; in other words, the gesture is not the point. Smith does not question the social, esthetic, or historical constructs that constitute the work’s context, and it is easy to miss the camouflaged relationship between folk designs and his paintings. In the final analysis, the switching of contexts is not even a salient point; Smith’s paintings are notable primarily for their formal beauty.

Presented in sets of two or three identical panels, the canvases feature simple patterns of alternatively parallel and perpendicular colored bars. The proportional and regular geometry is obviously important to Smith, as it establishes the order in which the dichotomies of color interact. It is the color and the surface quality of Smith’s work that constitute its most noticeable features. On initial surmise, the colors appear almost neon, but a second look reveals undercurrents of contradiction. The paint is mixed with cold wax and then applied onto a gray ground with a palette knife, and the edges are not taped but rather meticulously labored over, with a craftsmanlike perfectionism. The colors, almost always of a light value, are built up layer by layer on top of the gray, imbuing the final surface color with a translucent vibrating quality. The colors exist not as simplistic hues, but as mysterious combinations. This lack of coloristic resolution, however, does not result in a final coy endgame, but in a world of immanent potential. As Smith was quoted as saying, “I think that the colors that I’ve used are very nervous and, at the same time, very clear. There’s a clarity to them and yet there’s a sense of almost fidgety vibration that exists within them, they don’t sit still.”

Although Smith’s paintings appeal to the visual and the retinal in art, they also extend that somewhat historically truncated and critically debunked category back into the realm of the symbolic. Smith’s paintings constitute a return to the elemental in art; a return to the application of paint as the source of meaning.

Dena Shottenkirk