‘…no matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh. While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures.’
Wendell Berry, The Body and the Earth (1977)
‘Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things
—We murder to dissect.’
William Wordsworth, ‘The Tables Turned’ (1798)
In the hands of Stephen Smith, canvas is not used as a neutral vehicle for carrying paint. Instead it functions as an integral component of his paintings on a par with the colours and forms that adorn them. Canvas is ripped, torn, folded, stretched, saturated, cut, sewn, creased and layered. Many of these processes stand out for their physicality; they represent impositions upon the canvas, severing the canvas as a butcher might a carcass, foisting Smith’s will upon the material with force. The results however do not ring out of violence, or at least not a spurious or wholly destructive violence, because this process of dismantling represents the means by which his paintings are simultaneously reconstructed. Smith describes this as his wrangling of beauty with brutality.
The build up of these processes – that move between the gradual and fluid to the stark and dramatic – are heavily evidenced on the surface of Smith’s work. Layers of often deep black paint smother areas of the canvas unevenly. Edges are frayed, tendrils of the canvas’s weave undoing, and scraps of paint splattered canvas removed and affixed to others. There is something of the makeshift about them, a sense in which Smith brings that quality to the fore in celebration, in an attempt to capture the spontaneity of making in the work’s final iteration. His recent solution has been to form a large work by collaging smaller works together, thereby harnessing the energy of multiple sections of smaller works within the landscape of a whole painting. As a process it is in someways analogous to grafting where one plant is artificially affixed to another, to grow together as one. Having said that, with Smith nothing ever seems absolutely final but marked with volatility. The chances are that a once final work may well be later slashed and redistributed – a chunk here, a slice there – the images appear almost self-propagating.
This shifting between growth and destruction sounds remarkably like the relationship between the garden and the gardener. It is perhaps no wonder, given that much of this body of work was made during Smith’s six month residency at Hestercombe, surrounded by the ever changing landscape of 2016 winner of the European Garden Award. That is not to say that Smith’s paintings should be viewed as a direct response to Hestercombe’s historic grounds, rather that the way in which his paintings come into being are in some ways analogous to the processes at play in human interactions with both cultivated and natural landscapes. Not only do Smith’s works grow but they also appear to contract, like plants that die back in winter. Some canvases, as I have described, have been divided, torn apart, their parts separated and recombined to be grown on elsewhere. At times, they come to appear like overgrown wildernesses. Expanded Form, for example, evidences the intense struggle and time of its making through layers of canvas and paint applied in large gestural marks. Other works, like much of Shifted Ground, are almost barren, with the merest traces of paint dripped, rubbed or imprinted, and resemble areas of little used scrubland.
Usually, however, a system of designed motifs structure Smith’s paintings’ surfaces. This is particularly apparent in his untitled drawings with their repeated zig zag lines, wheels and processions of scribbled stars. Sometimes the patterning is bold and assertive like in Red Forest, Sound Mirror and Static Noise, which feel playful and confident in their graphic collaging of colour and shape. But the patterning effect pushes to the surface, albeit intermittently, throughout his large scale paintings too. It is at times like these that pattern feels hard fought. In a work like Abandoned Boats Smith uses thinned down oil paint to disrupt the order that might otherwise be suggested by sections of dots and lines. The paint, therefore, seeps into the weave of the canvas, like ink, or splatters as he attempts to tame it into systemised lines. It calls to mind the efforts we similarly make to control the forces of nature, cultivating land in gardens and allotments with rows, ponds, structured beds and defined boundary lines.
This tension between order and chaos, relates also to Smith’s concurrent mastery of his motifs and a relinquishing of control of the whole. He goes to elaborate lengths to open his work up to potential accidental mark-making: cutting out a central section from a canvas and removing it entirely; folding and unfolding painted canvases so that the paint from one rubs off on another; using unprimed canvases which he paints on from the back in diluted and hard to manage paint, suffusing the canvas in inky pools. Sometimes, as with Plant Room, the back and front of his canvases become interchangeable. These processes provide Smith with a creative traction which he amasses through a build up of discrete sections and then unleashes as these sections are brought together in a final work.
Smith’s work summons, therefore, his ongoing struggle to incapsulate the energy so natural to drawing, in his large scale works. He sees drawing as pivotal, describing a process of ‘drawing into the painting’. This is perhaps why much of his work strikes as highly redolent of Paul Klee – if blown up ten-fold – who famously described drawing as like ‘taking a line for a walk’. Klee’s assertion was founded on the belief that drawing was a fundamentally intuitive and spontaneous process during which a line could go anywhere at any time. Similarly, Smith strives to keep as many options as possible open for the marks and incisions that stalk his painted surfaces, whether intentionally drawn, impressed or accidentally dripped or bled.
The connections between ‘Shifting Ground’ and its situation in the grounds of Hestercombe can be drawn out still further. Interspersed amongst Smith’s paintings are a selection of historic works lent from the Ingram collection which Smith, and curator Tim Martin, selected for the purposes of the exhibition. These works are not intended to represent direct influences upon Smith’s work. Instead they suggest a transhistorical visual conversation in which post-war British painting is brought into an indirect relationship with this snapshot of Smith’s oeuvre. At times the visual connections echo closely. Frank Auerbach’s Drawing for Morning Crescent (1972) is alive with a dynamic scrawl akin to elements of Smith’s Destructive Dimension and Incident. The visual resemblance between Smith’s Tip Top and Terry Frost’s Sun, Sea and Boats (1952) is incidental but worth remarking. The peach coloured upper third of both preside over near-circular forms, reminiscent of rising or setting suns, below which is set a palette of white, grey and black. But taken in the context of Hestercombe’s grounds, the meeting of historic and contemporary is fitting indeed. One of the estate’s key defining features is the presence of multiple historic gardens on a single site. It combines a landscape garden designed by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde built between 1750 and 1786, and a formal garden designed through a collaboration between Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, commissioned in 1903 and constructed between 1904 and 1908. In addition, plans for a new twenty-first century garden are already afoot. Thus the estate lends itself to this kind of merging of moments, in which historically distinct elements – gardens, drawings or paintings – sit side by side, not in a relationship of development from one era to another, but as a patchwork, piecemeal and suggestive.
Lizzie Lloyd from Shifting Ground Exhibition at Hestercombe Gallery, UK, 2016