Gemma Smith, Margin, 2020, acrylic on board, 54 × 46".

Gemma Smith, Margin, 2020, acrylic on board, 54 × 46".

Gemma Smith

In a recent interview, Sydney-based artist Gemma Smith was quizzed regarding the “trappings” of high modernist abstraction salient in her work. Hinting that the repertoire of twentieth-century abstraction may seem anachronistic these days, the interviewer asked, “Do you ever wonder if you were born in the wrong era?” Smith’s unequivocal response: “No, of course not . . . There are still so many possibilities, even for abstraction.” Over a twenty-year career the artist has backed up this claim, finding ample scope for variation within a compendium of nonrepresentational idioms ranging across hard-edge geometry, gestural abstraction, Color Field, and Minimalist painting. While Smith eschews any consistent style or method, she remains committed to painting as craft and maintains a passion for the optical dynamics of color.

Smith’s latest solo show, “Noon,” engaged with two disparate paths of abstraction: near-monochrome paintings and free-form gestural works. The first was represented by four 2019 works from the artist’s “Threshold” series, a group of ultra-pale compositions begun in 2017. From a distance, these large unframed acrylics on linen, in square format, seem vaguely monochromatic. But closer inspection reveals delicate tints of amorphous color seamlessly blended with white titanium pigment. In Vacuum, for instance, minute nuances of pale yellow appeared to float within the lower section of the painting’s surface, with the upper portions tending more toward white. This infiltration of a white field with gaseous color contradicted the title’s suggestion of a purified spatial void. Equivalence (seven greens) also played with contradiction. The appearance of sameness was gainsaid by just discernible shades of green (seven, per the title) blended with white that appeared to shimmer and shift over much of the canvas. These works’ luminous, gently vibratory optical effects arise from painstaking construction. Smith builds up many layers of the lightly tinted white pigment, erasing all brush marks by hand-smoothing the strata to form a compacted opaque surface reminiscent of royal icing. Decisions about where pastel hues should yield to whiteness, or vice versa, are made largely at the outset. A world away from the hyperactive sensorium of contemporary media culture, these visually reserved paintings invited a slow, patient kind of looking that allowed the viewer to appreciate the subtle chromatic events they staged.

Interspersed with the “Threshold” paintings were six medium-size gestural works on board, whose coloristic energy and chaotic brushwork blared in comparison with their pale-hued neighbors. In them, the transparency of the acrylic paint revealed traces of former mark-making, plus accumulated sweeps, veils, and strokes of color that followed. Take the example of Margin, 2020: Smith appeared to have commenced by randomly placing abbreviated, dark-green marks on a light ground. As she added subsequent layers of paint to this surface—consisting of smears and thick, curved, or angular strokes of dazzling yellow and orange—these blob-like tokens of arbitrary or unthinking gesture continued to show through. Small streaks of red and patches of green materialized here and there. Like all of the gestural works in the show, Margin functioned as a palimpsest revealing the process by which it had been made. It invited us to retrace incremental decisions (variously arbitrary and calculated) made by the artist about color dialogues and intensities, degrees of pigment viscosity, and levels of hand pressure applied to brushes. In this respect, the gestural works staged the act of making a painting as an improvised, open-ended process, unmoored from any preplanned conceptual or compositional schema. In her work, Smith treads the fine line between compositional control and chaos with the elegance of a trapeze artist.