Gordon Smith, "B VI," serigragh on wove paper, ed. 55 / 65, 1968, 18.5" X 18.5". Printed by Blackmore Press, Montreal.
The Printed Pictures, December 8, 2009 to March 7, 2010, Burnaby Art Gallery
BY: Michael Harris
Prints will always be met with some faint suspicion — anything with a remove from the artist’s hand will plunge the viewer (and, more so, the calculating buyer) into the same quagmire that photography more violently produced. Gordon Smith’s very extensive printmaking career has raised its share of this suspicion — he printed Christmas cards; he liked screen printing because it was “easy to do”; he gets 50-odd pieces for the “work” of one — but the work itself has also gone a long way toward alleviating that suspicion.
The Burnaby Art Gallery’s 200-piece exhibition Gordon Smith: The Printed Pictures is a place to start. The show covers 65 years, a rough span of the artist’s multi-phasic, and much-lauded career. This is, surprisingly, the first exhibition to take in the breadth of Smith’s print work (he’s always posited that print-making is a fine art unto itself, and not merely a means of reproduction).
The singularity of the exhibition perhaps left curator Darrin Martens with an obligation to be completist about it. At times the selection process appears to have a museum show’s interest in encyclopedic grasp. The earliest piece, “The Ironing” (1945), is figurative. It shows Smith’s wife, Marion, at work, and departs from the body of work because it includes a human body. As stylistically dynamic as this survey is (we move breathlessly from technical illustrations of skunk cabbages to abstractions of cityscapes to subject-less geometries of solid colour) the work almost uniformly refuses to admit the human form, as though people would detract from Smith’s study of line and colour by introducing narrative.
There’s a suite of wonderfully raw drawings depicting the seashore at West Vancouver’s Caulfield neighborhood, a great relief after the rigorous confines and hard edges of the work he created just a few years before. The strokes, madly sketching in the sea, beach, and clouds, are plainly evident. Ian Thom, a friend of Smith’s and curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, would say the strokes are the subject themselves.
The exhibition concludes with three works that forecast the “tangle” paintings that have dominated Smith’s private gallery shows in recent years. The trio should leave nobody in any doubt that Smith’s printmaking has informed his more famous paintings without being subservient to them.
Martens points out that all prints have a subtly unique quality, though viewers have to know how to find it. “The hand is always involved,” he says. “There’s variety to how a printmaker inks a plate, say. Printmaking is absolutely an artistic medium. If there happen to be similarities between the works, so be it.”
Photography proved that effortless reproductions don’t diminish conceptual value, even if market value does diminish when availability increases. Printmaking benefits from that insight, but Smith’s prints occupy a prized middle-space between photography and painting — they privilege conceptual practice over a fetishization of the artwork as an object, while reinforcing (maybe paradoxically) their “madeness”, their handling by the artist. Think of the people so conspicuously absent from Smith’s work — each one is a facsimile of some master genetic code, each with their unique variegations and souls.
It would be a mistake, at any rate, to consider this show a final statement about Smith’s contribution to printmaking in Canada. At 90, Smith still works several hours every day. On my last visit to his house, he showed me photographic prints he had been making of Marion, asleep in her chair — 65 years after “The Ironing”, it seems Smith is allowing a figure (the same figure) back into his prints once more.