Work by the young, London painter Anj Smith (Pembury, 1979) was recently shown in the exhibition Don Quijote in Witte de With. Several small canvasses with meticulously painted scenes revealing a fantastic, strange and seductive world. Seemingly without effort, Smith transforms such timeless themes as the sublime and death into well-wrought representations that are notable for their virtuoso combination of traditional oil painting techniques and expressionistic details.
One of the most strikingly features of your work is the small format and the use of almost anachronistic, traditional techniques: oil painting in a meticulous, miniaturist style, and etching. At the same time it is said that your work is inspired by street cultures and couture. Can you, by ways of a general introduction to your work, elaborate on this ‘schizophrenic’ character of your work?
‘Obviously painting is pluri-specific; it’s not just about autonomy and representation of marks but also has to make sense in relation to its historical legacy. Negotiating this is something I’m constantly aware of, which is why, as you put it, there’s a fusion of “styles and techniques”. My intention for the work is to engage the viewer intimately; hence the small scale and detailed areas, but the barren patches and rude slabs of impasto are also partly employed to explode any conservatism.
For example, in certain zones of a painting there might be areas of hard-core minutiae, relating to ideas about particular social obsessions, or whatever, or acting as an indication of a hierarchy of attention in terms of the work as a whole.’
What kind of social obsessions are you referring to here? Can you give an example?
‘Well, a specific example of a social trajectory that fascinates me in this way would be the relentless quest for novelty and cuteness which seems to permeate aspects of social consciousness. This parasitic insistence on surface and status totally frustrates me, yet I also find these things absorbing and seductive. It’s this tension and the intensity of it which intrigues me.’
The art-critic Francesco Manacorda wrote that the two most distinctive notions of your work are nature and fashion, and the way that you connect them in your paintings. Can you elaborate on this?
‘Yeah, his observation makes total sense. However, I see the work as constantly developing more fractured concerns than just the deconstruction of these two things and the relationship between them. I also think it’s important that the work retains an elusiveness, so the viewer can “claim” it, in the sense of enjoying their own personal response. It’s also as much about the process of painting and the autonomy or control of the medium as anything else.’
You often depict female characters in wild natural landscapes. Your still life paintings with stuffed animals, fabrics and lumps of rock also have a ‘naturalistic’ appeal. Can you tell me something of your choice of motifs and characters for your paintings?
‘There’s definitely no linear or singular narrative involved. I’m interested in what could potentially operate as a contemporary, lo-fi translation of traditional ideas of the sublime (or not). The idea of the limitless in the natural world being replaced by a limitlessness not interested in relating to nature fascinates me. I think this goes back to a preoccupation with fashion, with the otherness of “a look” in the pages of Vogue, or whatever, the social projection of idealised perfection. It’s got more to do with “other-as-exoticised-self” as opposed to traditional ideas of self, defined against the “otherness” of a landscape though. The thing about fashion, for me, is its logic of excess, the rejection of utility and its perfecting potential for the human body. I think these ideas are universal, whether local street sub-cultures or high fashion collections.’
Your painting technique is rather special. Although the background is beautifully crafted, in the foreground tangled lumps of oil paint give a three-dimensional materiality to natural elements and the clothes of some of the girls depicted. You have a microscopic attention to detail and seem to be working hours at a stretch on one work. However small the paintings are, the viewer can discover and unravel the painting bit by bit. How did you develop your technique? How important is its somewhat ‘obsessive’ aspect to you?
‘Decision-making in terms of detail, passive areas or thick impasto happens in relation to the particular aspect of the painting I’m thinking about. I try to decide what language to employ to describe a particular thing. Of course, in practise it’s impossible to be that dictatorial, as the medium has ideas of its own, and surprises happen all over the place. I do spend hours working in the studio, partly to allow for a certain intensity in places. I once read that the average viewer spends less than three seconds looking at a painting. My hope is to seduce the viewer with layers of interest, so that people who spend longer looking at the work are rewarded by seeing things that are invisible at first glance. I think the obsessive aspect of my work is quite apt really in terms of subject matter. I think the paintings look the way they do because it’s important that the aesthetic qualities are analogous to the conceptual concerns of each piece.’
If I would try to put my finger on the most essential features of your highly individualistic, personal, fantastic world, and dive as deep as I can into the background of it, where would I have to look? You once stated: ‘I now live in the secular contemporary art world, but I see a lot of parallels between fashion and religious sects.’
‘I find it quite difficult to talk about the environment in which I grew up, especially as I’ve been misquoted in the past. I’m sure it has lent a pathological menace to the work in some cases, and perhaps that’s where my interest in extreme logic and social value systems originates. I do see it as a rich source of information, which I choose to mine periodically. There are lots of parallels between fashion and sects! I think I was talking about uncompromising fanaticism, self-denial and extreme beliefs about escaping the mundane. Or it could have been about visionary thinkers, progressive social reorganisation and celebration of life.’
Do you feel inspired or related to art historical traditions of the past like Symbolism or naturalistic tendencies to which your work indirectly seems to refer?
‘I’m permanently conscious of art histories in general, and the need to both negotiate these things and reflect the contemporary context of making art now. I can’t say I feel a particular connection to the Symbolist movement in particular, no. I love Gustav Moreau’s painting of Hercules and the Hydra though. All that phallic, serpentine monstrosity. Amazing. I’ve been looking at seventeenth-century Dutch still life painting, whilst in Holland recently. I love the way the banal reality of breakfast clutter is transcended by the celebration of some exquisite addition to the table, like Willem Kalf’s obsessively rendered Ming bowl, containing the obligatory decaying fruit.’
The symbolists for instance used the female character as a symbol for sexuality and sensuality. She was used as a means of expressing the tension between the two most important themes of life: death and eroticism. What are the roles your female characters play?
‘I find those sorts of responses incredibly interesting and I think it’s important that the work is fluid enough to allow for them. However, unlike the Symbolists, I am in no way trying to convey an absolute truth or be so dictatorially linear.’
The main quality of your paintings is the fact that it is a hybridisation and fusion of styles and techniques. Can you say in the end that it all boils down to the fact that your work is decorative and illustrative in the best and most profound sense of these terms because this reflects your highly individual, contemporary view on the world?
‘I have no problem with my work being described as decorative in places, although I’m aware of a certain dated intellectual snobbery which deems “decoration” devoid of criticality, which I don’t think is the case. Decoration can be an apt visual vehicle for ideas about excessiveness, or a pornographic attention to detail, for example, or an enjoyment of the lusciousness of playing with paint.
I have to say that I don’t consider my work as illustrative though, in any sense. That seems to connote a patness, and a closure of any kind of conversation or potential for dialogue and additionally doesn’t take into account the autonomy of the medium and it’s own intervention. I don’t think things are that cut and dried. Fundamentally the work is intended to operate on much more than a singular, literal level.’
A recent work like Ultra-Ology (2006) doesn’t have the characteristic female portraits as its main theme anymore. Here animals become the subject of a painting that is a cross between a landscape painting and a still-life. I was quite intrigued by this painting. Can you tell me something about it?
‘Well, a good deal of my work is preoccupied with ideas surrounding death, perhaps partly due to social taboos surrounding a relevant discussion of it. Baudelaire said the topic makes us laugh in a “strained and obscene manner” and I think we are culturally conditioned to ignore the reality of our daily decrepitude, digesting concepts like “anti-aging” in the uncompromising celebration of the cult of youth. I was thinking about these things slightly more abstractly, whilst making Ultra-Ology. Animals have frequently appeared in my paintings of figures, and whilst I was looking at some taxidermy exhibits towards this end, I became enthusiastic about giving some of them centre stage.’
I find that very interesting, the fact that you connect universal themes like death and the sublime, to fashion as an idiom, the expression of the cult of youth, et cetera. Death or mortality seems a very outmoded theme to handle, whilst actually if you look around, so many contemporary artists deal with it one way or another. I’m quite fascinated by that. But this makes me all the more curious about your specific handling of the theme. Can you tell some more about the particular way you visualise this preoccupation in your paintings? I mean how does it relate to the still lives, the other motives you use?
‘I don’t agree that death is an “outmoded theme”, particularly as making work (in itself) inevitably has existential implications in the reflection of certain experiences and social contexts. I think this is probably as specific as I can be, as I’m in no way using particular “motifs” to illustrate any conceptual “agenda” regarding “death”. My engagement with ideas surrounding this subject is more intuitive, nuanced and in places more abstractly realised, like just quoting a certain fragility in a particular place, for example.’
Do you consider your titles, which all denote some mystery, like Adamas, New Discontinuity, Mighty Mausolus, Death of Dadahah and New Dawn, part of the work?
‘I have to say that I don’t think there’s any particular “way” to read the work. The titles come from really different places. One painting was called Willadeene, after Dolly Parton’s sister, who was a waitress all her life and never had a chance to shine. I’d been collecting her lyrics and thinking a good deal about the nature of aspiration at the time. Other titles are more complex, splicing together words to create different linguistic nuances or references. “New Discontinuity” is another straightforward reference, to Bataille’s thing about us all as isolated entities, until our final communal end. However, I usually choose titles which can operate in several directions. As with the work, I think it’s important to allow the viewer space for a personal engagement.’