New York

Philip Smith


The eight works in Philip Smith's recent show featured a technique that has become his signature: the artist spreads a colored surface of oil and beeswax on an underlayer of the same media, then—working without preparatory sketches—scrapes through the top coat with a sharp instrument to reveal the contrasting color beneath. Smith has made paintings this way, sort of like a child's scratchboard drawing, for years; new in this group are the exclusively solid ground colors, which (unlike the grids, stripes, and polka-dot grounds of earlier efforts) bring simplicity and clarity to the densely packed compositions.

Smith's method offers him an extremely limited range of effects, with little opportunity for process-oriented exploration, but even so, the artist's draftsmanship gives a feeling of freedom and experimentation. The resulting works have the uniform flatness of a textile—in fact, in his use of wax on fiber and his preoccupation with primitive-looking motifs, Smith seems to play a variation on batik, or on batik-derived fabrics of the '50s. The influence of design is apparent in other ways as well; many of the color ideas might have come from a J. Crew catalogue, while also recalling the vividness of the artist's childhood in midcentury Miami. They are combined in stylish and graphically appealing juxtapositions: chartreuse over black, burnt orange over white, matte silver over white, dark charcoal over lime.

While earlier works feature allover pattern, those on view here are more about drawing, albeit with a similar lack of a focus or visual center. Instead, the figurative imagery that fills up the works leads the eye from place to place in a free-associative manner. The effect of this eclectic assortment of readily identifiable objects (drawn from sources as disparate as design catalogues, ancient or “primitive” art forms, and advertising) is like that of objects coalescing in a barely remembered dream. Among the recurring motifs, time figures prominently: alarm clocks, wall clocks and wristwatches abound, while numbers arranged in roughly circular fashion suggest clock faces (as well as a dial telephone). Organic images (long strands of DNA, houseplants, flowers, fish, monkeys, birds, as well as birds walking on human legs) also play a role. Human figures are bent in prayer or servitude or apply themselves to various tasks.

Abstract motifs such as stars, spirals, crosshatches, and fanlike shapes seem to draw on Pacific Island and Australian cultures or Native American petroglyphs and textiles. It's hard to resolve Smith's duality of modern anxiety (ticking clocks, ringing phones, products and numbers and signs) and the natural world (stars, plants, and representations of infinity both traditional and modern). But the fact that these juxtapositions are irresolvable seems to be part of the point.

In the wrong hands, the scratchboard technique, fashion consciousness, and archtypal imagery could yield an irritating faux naïveté, or a shallow appropriation art. But Smith's work is rather a simple means to an end, an art very specifically of our own time, place, and culture, in which even dreams are saturated with commercial regurgitations of the timeless.

Justin Spring