“I don’t want to plateau as a painter; I don’t want to get comfortable” – an interview with Anj Smith

By Aina Pomar - Tuesday, November 3, 2015
“I don’t want to plateau as a painter; I don’t want to get comfortable” – an interview with Anj Smith

Apparently surreal and fantastic, Anj Smith’s paintings approach very realistic elements and current human matters. Her largest solo exhibition ‘Phosphor on the Palms’, currently on show at Hauser & Wirth London, is the culmination of three years of work and the expression of a new phase for the artist who, after twenty years painting, feels more brave and bolder than ever. Artdependence talked with Anj Smith about painting, art, languages and fashion in an interview at Hauser&Wirth London last October.

“I don’t want to plateau as a painter; I don’t want to get comfortable” – an interview with Anj Smith

Apparently surreal and fantastic, Anj Smith’s paintings approach very realistic elements and current human matters.

Her largest solo exhibition ‘Phosphor on the Palms’, currently on show at Hauser & Wirth London, is the culmination of three years of work and the expression of a new phase for the artist who, after twenty years painting, feels more brave and bolder than ever.

The artist born in Kent in 1978 has had shows in Bluecoat (Liverpool), the Hudson Valley Centre for Contemporary Art (Peekskill, NY), La Maison Rouge (Paris) and Me Collector’s Room (Berlin), among other museums and galleries in Europe and the United States.

Anj Smith usually creates small format paintings, working meticulously with every piece and adding multiple miniature details (some parts have been painted with one-hair brushes). With strong references to art history and the incorporation of current social and autobiographical issues Anj Smith’s works are beautifully disturbing.

Artdependence talked with Anj Smith about painting, art, languages and fashion in an interview at Hauser&Wirth London last October.

Artdependence Magazine: ‘Phosphor on the Palms’ is your largest exhibition to date. What are you exploring in the works of this new show?

Anj Smith: They are really layered, they are quite complex works and there’s a lot in each one. I got the title from a Wallace Stevens poem, which is a beautiful, ‘Fabliau of Florida’ it is called. One of the main images in this poem is of a beach scene in Florida with this leather sky and it is quite hard to determine in the poem what is the sky, and what is the sea and what is the sand or the surf. It is all indistinguishable.

So, the reason that I referenced this poem as a title is because there are lots of different subjects in the work: language, fashion, post-catastrophe, environmentalism, archaeology, gender. There are so many different things, but underlying everything there is this one communality, which is a sense of the liminal.

The whole show rejects easy classifications in little boxes and labels; it’s more about embracing complexity in all of its glory…and being ok with that!

At the end of the poem there’s an oil slick, there’s chemical smear on some palm trees or some palm fronds that are in the surf. The image of the palm tree is reduced to beach debris and the rainbow that you normally see located in romantic poetry on a waterfall is just reduced completely to this oil slick, this smear of something in the detritus. And I love that because I thought “It’s quite bleak in a way, rejecting any idea of transcendence”, but then I read it again and I thought  “maybe he’s just relocating transcendence in the things that we overlook and in the unlikely”. That again was the decider to use the poem as a reference.

It’s a beautiful, stunning, it’s one of those poems you read and you get really strong visual images.

Anj Smith. Cammo. 2015. Oil on linen. 36.9 x 29.7 x 2.5 cm / 14 1/2 x 11 3/4 x 1 in. © Anj Smith. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

Anj Smith. Cammo (detail). 2015. Oil on linen. 36.9 x 29.7 x 2.5 cm / 14 1/2 x 11 3/4 x 1 in. © Anj Smith. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

AD: It’s not the first time that you use literary references. And you have actually contributed to the ‘Book & Printed Matter Laboratory’ at Hauser and Wirth. What’s the role literature has in your work?

AS: It’s actually quite profound in my work and in my life. I grew up without any television. We lived in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t really feel that I had access to anything, to the external world. We were living in a quite small place, with a monoculture. So the way that I explored reality was through books. I think that it affected the way my cognition was formed, because there’s always this slight remove.

I read avidly, I’ve always have done it and I think I always will.

AD: So it is something that you have taken with you all your life and obviously it is represented in your paintings.

AS: Yes, exactly. There’s also certain devices or literary tropes that I see in books and I think that they are helpful parallels to talk about painting as well.

I don’t know if you’ve read ‘My name is red’ by Orham Pamuk. The chapters are narrated by different voices like the colour red (hence the title). But also there are chapters that are narrated by different people that are masquerading as other people. It’s a really complex book, very layered. The way it is practically organised relates to how my work is as well. There’s not a literal singular narrative, it’s just fractures and layers that built up. The work exists in the mind of the reader and I see a parallel between that and my painting. The real work exists in the mind of the person who’s looking at the work. There’s no such one message that somebody has to get.

Anj Smith. The Excreted. 2014. Oil on linen. 14 x 21.4 x 2.5 cm / 5 1/2 x 8 3/8 x 1 in. © Anj Smith. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

Anj Smith. The Excreted (detail). 2014. Oil on linen. 14 x 21.4 x 2.5 cm / 5 1/2 x 8 3/8 x 1 in. © Anj Smith. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

AD: What challenges did you have to face when creating this new show and what’s the evolution that you have experienced from previous shows and works?

AS: Well, the one thing that I’m always conscious of is that I don’t want to plateau as a painter; I don’t want to get comfortable. I want to always push the work and see what happens. Just on a very literal sense, the work has got bigger and also more ambitious in the sense that I am braver and bolder in the execution of my ideas and I feel more confident about painting. Obviously, now it has been twenty years that I’ve been painting almost every day…

AD: Every day?

AS: Yes, well I don’t paint on the weekends because I have a young family. That’s the other reason why it has taken me three years to paint a show as I had a child and I took a few months off for that.

I’ve actually already started the next body of work, but I’m not going to take three years to execute that. It was amazing to completely concentrate on a body of work. I did other projects on the side, but I needed to do that, I needed to see what happened. They are really intense works; it was definitely worth doing that.

Anj Smith. Desert Epochs. 2014. Oil on linen. 30.7 x 38.2 x 2.8 cm / 12 1/8 x 15 x 1 1/8 in. © Anj Smith. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

Anj Smith. Desert Epochs (detail). 2014. Oil on linen. 30.7 x 38.2 x 2.8 cm / 12 1/8 x 15 x 1 1/8 in. © Anj Smith. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

AD: Your works look profoundly obscure, but they don’t seem to express hopelessness. The viewer can see beauty through them. How would you describe the world that you create through your pieces?

AS: I think they often operate in different levels. There’s often a literal landscape, perhaps a post-catastrophic landscape or something that indicates that a shift has happened in nature or a disaster of some kind, there has been some change. On top of that I usually see landscapes as a portrait of a psychology or mind-set; a sort of sense that something it’s around socially, like a paranoia or an obsession. They are also portraits of psychologies as well, more abstract than the literal world.

I can’t help but be affected by the environmental situation and everything that is going on. I very much feel that these are paintings of now of our time; I think that’s important. I know that there are some schools of painting that feel that there can be some kind of atemporality around painting and that you don’t need to either show it in the content or in the execution that you are painting now. But I do think it’s important to be of your time, to reflect what is happening.

Even if there’s a sense of something, perhaps, post-apocalyptic I’m not ever painting something that is not already around us. We are living in a period of dramatic environmental decline. Also, the creatures that you see [in the paintings] exist exactly as I’ve rendered them. There’s nothing fantastical or surreal. Sometimes people have said to me in the past that my work seems quite surreal. There’s nothing that is not completely plausible, which I think empties out any possibility of surrealism in the work. Even the beetles or the bright colours are exactly how they exist in nature. There’s nothing that is fantastical in the work.

AD: The portraits in this show allude to topics related to identity. The subjects of the portraits are presented with a strong personality but at the same time all the miniature elements surrounding them seem to help completing their identity.

AS: I think they signify different things in different works. Often they are an echo or reverberation of a character that it’s in the work. But at the same time in the portraits there are elements of autobiography.

It was amazing seeing someone close to me going through a sex change, because it took more than ten years. For a while, he had had a mastectomy and he hadn’t yet had a penis grafted, so he was living as neither man nor female physically, but obviously as the person that we all know and love. Watching someone going through that made me think about questions of gender, what it means to live beyond gender or what exactly are these structures that we hang our identity on or what happens if you ignore those or think about yourself beyond those things. That’s why in the capital library [The Hauser and Wirth’s Book & Printed Matter Laboratory] you’ll see Judith Butler there, because she is an amazing writer that suggests that gender is something that has a malleable state. I find this very interesting.

I very much identify as feminist and I always will, but she pushes the debate away from a binary male-female oscillation thing. I think that’s important because we need to be more inclusive and have a wider discussion about these things.

On top of that I see the portraits as actually not being anything more than just furniture. It’s just a device where to hang all the things that I’m questioning in my ideas. I very much see the paintings as conceptual contemporary art. My main medium is actually ideas rather than painting, although painting itself is also the subject of the work.

Anj Smith. Night Life Galaxy. 2013. Oil on linen. 77.2 x 54.3 x 2.5 cm / 30 3/8 x 21 3/8 x 1 in. © Anj Smith. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

AD: You talk about the environment, about what’s going on in the world, about gender. Is there any political dimension in your works?

AS: No, because these are abstract things layered in the work. I don’t have an agenda like that. And I think it’s important not to because there needs to be room in the work for the work to breath and for people to bring their experiences to the work, so the work can be created.

I suppose I’m just very interested in the culture of now and what it means to live now. So you’ll see lot of fashion in the work, I’m very interested in fashion, mainly because fashion is a language and I’m very interested in languages. And we all have to speak it whether we want it or not. It distils all of our ideas, our social collective ideas into a vestimentary form.

Fashion is a huge source of inspiration. And I was thinking, when I was coming to meet you this morning, of a quote by Alber Elbaz, the director of Lanvin. He said: “When something is cool, it’s cold”. Fashion is constantly evolving and there’s a restlessness about that, an instability about that. I’m actually really interested in cold fashion as well and what that means: what it means to be in a society where there’s real emphasis in something that is so superficial and about status and surface and what that means.

There’s a lot of aspiration and desire in the work, as well, which is related. There’s a celebration of fashion and I don’t thing this is a trivial thing, I think it is a very important language, as I was saying, but as well there’s some questioning about these emphasis in our society.

Anj Smith. Letters of the Unconscious. 2015. Oil on linen. 50.8 x 43.7 cm / 20 x 17 1/4 in. © Anj Smith. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne

AD: We can find in your work influences of Mughal miniatures, Outsider Art and Dutch Vanitas. How these movements are reflected in your work and what is the role that contemporary painting play in your work?

AS: There’s a lot of art history in the western canon that I’m really interested in. But I think that we should broaden the terms of what’s included in the canon. For example, outsider art, you mentioned, people like Adolf Wölfli, the Swiss artist, are incredible. Richard Dadd, this British Victorian painter that sadly had mental health problems and he killed his father because he thought he was the devil. He was incarcerated in what was then Bedlam [London’s Bethlem Hospital] and he made this incredible paintings. oOne of them, ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stoke’ has very strong reference in one of my works. The title is a reference to a manuscript that Richard Dadd wrote about his masterpiece.

I’m fascinated by artists that have struggled. It’s the opposite to the easily one truth, it’s something that has such a personal vision that there’s not a concern about what might be tasteful or what might be even considered art. It’s more about a very powerful personal vision and I find this authenticity about that, which I don’t always see in everything. There are all these visionaries that are only lately been considered artists that explored these tight conventionality that’s around.

The Mughal painting reference is actually more about the appreciation of how space is organised. You’ll have a huge sultan and then you’ll have the courtiers that are barely painted. That is an obvious literal example and it’s much more subtle than that, but looking at Mughal miniature paintings taught me a lot about painting and they are very close to my heart.

Art history is very important to the work, particularly the Vanitas paintings. I’m not trying to make an historical painting; my work is actually the antithesis of the Dutch Vanitas painting. If in one of those paintings you see a skull you know that it’s a reference to mortality, for example, and probably in the Dutch world it was mercantile wealth versus the aristocratic and there’s this whole code of what they wanted to talk about and any viewer looking at the work understands what the painter was talking about. But now is completely different. We don’t use symbolism in painting anymore, but I love the fact that there are all these traces of what the old symbols used to mean and I like to work with the ghosts of that and to make new meanings.

In a sense that’s completely opposite of what Dutch were doing. There’s no code, there’s no symbol, it’s more shadows and ghosts.

Language evolves, and that’s something that definitely intrigues me. I actually read an amazing quote the other day by Noam Chomsky, who said something about language being the core property that defines human beings.

For example, we used to say “twelve of the clock” in English and now we say “twelve o’clock”. Language is constantly on the march and constantly evolving. But it is the core property of human beings what makes us humans and we are always unstable. I see a relationship between that and an existential anxiety that is in the work. I definitely see the two as being interlinked, so that’s why I’m really fascinated about language.

Installation view, ‘Anj Smith. Phosphor on the Palms’, Hauser & Wirth London, 2015 © Anj Smith. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne 

Installation view, ‘Anj Smith. Phosphor on the Palms’, Hauser & Wirth London, 2015 © Anj Smith. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Alex Delfanne 

AD: It seems that despite the spread use of new media and the apparent oversight of painting, there are currently painters redefining and raising a new interest on the medium. How do you feel about it?

AS: That’s my favourite question! Paul Delaroche in the 1830’s, when he saw the first photographs, he just said “Painting is dead” and that’s it! And then for the last hundred and fifty years there has been Donald Judd in the sixties, everyone has been harrumphing about painting and that it’s why it’s so wonderful to paint now.

If you think about my subject matter, using a medium that has this unique history, that it’s dead, but it’s still around and seduces people, for me that opens out a kind of metaphor. Despite everything, there’s something eternal that remains. And I find this very existentially cheering.

It fits perfect with the work. I could not find a more active medium if I wanted to because it has this unique history of being dead, but obviously post-death is incredibly profound to work with. And I don’t think other mediums actually have that.

Another amazing think about painting is that it has this rich history and you can mine on that. Of course other medium has that as well, but I don’t think it’s quite at the same extent, just because painting is so old.

AD: As you said, since the invention of photography there has been this rivalry between painting and photography. But it seems that we are now over this debate because photography itself is already evolving and changing, so painters can focus again on their medium.

AS: Exactly. I’ll show you some areas in the work where paint is really thick or actually the areas of really fine detail where I paint with one hairbrush. There’s something really futile about doing this, there’s something really pointless, because obviously if I wanted and image of any eye I could take one with my phone in less than a second. The fact that I’m actually making something that is really gratuitous is an expression of what we’ve just been talking about, the fact that it is dead and pointless. But it still has enormous power to seduce, so what could be seen as decoration in the work is actually flying a flag for painting in its gratuitous nature, being something to be celebrated.

Anj Smith Portrait, photo courtesy Alex Delfanne

AD: What is your working routine, how do you work at the studio?

AS: I am at my studio at twenty past eight every morning, I walk there and then I have to take over picking up my child from child-care at six o’clock, so I have the whole work day every day. I have that space outside of the home, very important for me.

I don’t really take breaks; I worked really hard during that time [creating the show]. And I find that I can get an enormous amount done at the end of the day.

I don’t really take holidays. I’ve just been to my first holiday for almost a year!

AD: Will you continue working with small size paintings?

AS: Not necessarily. I don’t have any compulsion to make a particular size painting. At the moment the size of the work makes sense with the subject matter and the idea. But they have actually been getting bigger and I’m sure that this might be something that will continue.

Two of the portraits that I’m working on at the studio currently are bigger than the portraits that are here. I would like to punctuate an exhibition space with different sizes works as well, I think that’s important.

AD: Thanks Anj, great talking to you!

‘Phosphor on the Palms’ runs until 21st November at Hauser&Wirth London. Anj Smith will be in conversation with Laurence Sillars, Chief Curator BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art on Wednesday 4th November at Hauser&Wirth London.

Image above: Anj Smith Portrait, photo courtesy Alex Delfanne

Aina Pomar graduated in Sociology and Photography before completing a Master in New Media Art Curatorship. She has collaborated with Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró in Majorca and with CCCBLab and Fundació Foto Colectania in Barcelona. She moved to London to work at the Cultural Office of the Embassy of Spain, where she coordinated visual arts and exhibition projects with the aim of promoting Spanish culture and artists across the United Kingdom. She currently collaborates with various galleries and art projects in London.

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