Kate Smith, You can be Phillip Seymour Hoffman, or you can calm down, 2017, oil and acrylic on linen, 14 x 18".

Kate Smith, You can be Phillip Seymour Hoffman, or you can calm down, 2017, oil and acrylic on linen, 14 x 18".

Kate Smith

Kate Smith, You can be Phillip Seymour Hoffman, or you can calm down, 2017, oil and acrylic on linen, 14 x 18".

Australian artist Kate Smith’s recent show “An Impression of an impression” was characteristically sparse. Comprising just four little landscape-format paintings, two of them given walls of their own, the exhibition showed the artist continuing her practice of working on a very small scale and deftly manipulating the space of her installations.

Three of the four paintings were titled An Impression of an impression (after Rupert Bunny) (all works 2017) and numbered—variations on a theme. In each, hastily brushed-on strokes of chartreuse in oil form the backdrop to quickly scribbled black felt-tip and ballpoint pen drawings of flowers in a jar. Some of the flowers’ petals have been filled in with pastel-pink, orange, brown, and gray acrylic, while others are left as empty outlines, lending the paintings an unfinished air. This sense of incompletion is echoed by the swaths of exposed primed canvas peeking out from behind the yellow-green ground. The series references a still-life painting by early-twentieth-century Australian Impressionist Rupert Bunny, Still Life—Hollyhocks, 1927/29. It’s a decidedly minor work by an artist renowned for his large-scale tableaux of glamorous belle epoque women in various states of repose and undress. Thrice repeated, Smith’s versions feel like studies—technical exercises in speed and spontaneity.

The fourth painting, You can be Phillip Seymour Hoffman, or you can calm down, evinced more time spent working up the painting’s surface. But its presentation to the public in a gallery does not necessarily suggest that the artist is done with it. Layers of textured oil paint—in sage, orange, evergreen, and Philip Guston–esque pink—aggregate as a field of incandescent yellow invades the composition from the right. The paw prints of the artist’s kitten are visible in this mass of pigment, the most thickly applied passage of paint in any of the four works. Like the three studies that accompanied it, this painting connotes the not necessarily productive time of the studio—of doodling, dawdling, playing around. Indeed, the paw prints give us cause to recall the ur–studio tinkerer, Bruce Nauman, and the cats and mice captured on night-vision footage in his 2001 Mapping the studio video installations.

Much of Smith’s earlier work—persistently small paintings and assemblages made of recycled biscuit packages, clippings from magazines, offcuts of rope and wood, and discarded clothes decorated with patches of brightly colored paint—has a consciously lo-fi, kindergarten-craft character. While this type of “unmonumental” art is frequently associated with the de-skilled aesthetic that percolated in Melbourne artist-run spaces such as Y3K Gallery, which operated from 2009 to 2011, and where Smith exhibited alongside artist peers such as Christopher L G Hill and Alex Vivian, Smith’s practice actually holds more in common with a group of painters who trained under feminist doyenne Vivienne Binns at the School of Art & Design of the Australian National University in Canberra, including Trevelyan Clay and Liang Luscombe, both of whom eventually wound up in Melbourne. Binns rose to prominence for her powerful paintings of female “central core” imagery in the 1960s and ’70s and has since refined a painting style that combines dense patterning (informed by the feminist reappraisal of craft), a technique of layering with “holes” that give way to subterranean levels of painting, and a pluralism of painterly styles converging on the one canvas. 

Younger artists such as Smith continue to pursue some of these compositional traits, but do so with an exaggerated sense of informality. While Smith’s paintings may not convey the discursive cynicism about painting associated with artists such as Martin Kippenberger or Michael Krebber, neither do they suggest complete faith in it. Their stance might be described more accurately as one of deferral. Smith’s incorporation of drawing into the “Impression of an impression” paintings is, perhaps, our best clue to her thoughts here, for drawing as a medium often suggests a future resolution—perhaps on a larger scale and with a greater sense of permanence.

Helen Hughes