Blu Smith: Thinking about painting

By Christine Clark, July 2011

When it comes to finding the “meaning” of Blu Smith’s paintings, you’re on your own.

In her 1966 essay, "Against Interpretation," Susan Sontag wrote, “In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable.”

This may not be exactly the way Blu Smith responds to interpretation of his work, but he does tell a funny story about an early show of his abstract paintings. He remembers that several people were so overwhelmed by what they perceived as sexual content that a few of them were quite embarrassed. He laughingly suggests that their reaction had more to do with their own thought patterns than with his paintings. 

When he’s asked, “Well, what do you think about when you’re painting?” he answers with “Painting.” So, it seems that sometimes interpretation is not just about subduing art; there are moments when it’s actually wrong. It’s very hard, though, to stand in front of non-representational art without trying to relate the image to some external reality. It’s difficult to just let go and feel.

Wassily Kandinsky, one of the great innovators of the early 19th century, wrote, “Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colours, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.”

Blu Smith began experimenting with abstract painting about 14 years ago, shortly after completing a BFA at the University of Victoria, but it’s been a long journey from his beginnings to his present. As a young man growing up in Vernon, the son of a mining family, he developed a talent for drawing, but was reluctantly about to enrol in a science-based course when he was encouraged by an advisor at Okanagan College to try the Visual Arts program instead. It appears to have been the right choice, because in 2009 he participated in the prestigious Florence International Biennale.

During his early years as an artist, he focussed on perfecting his technical capabilities as a realist painter. After moving to Victoria to complete his studies, he was also working as a sign painter, a profession which, before the advent of vinyl lettering, required great precision and prescribed techniques; a rigidity in approach perhaps comparable for some artists to realist painting. At UVic, under the tutelage of Don Harvey, Smith was encouraged to use his sign painting skills in his own artwork, an inspired and inspiring suggestion which led to experiments in Pop Art and eventually to a freer, looser and more poetically truthful practice as an abstract painter. He names abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning as his favourite artist.

Exploration is an essential ingredient in Smith’s artistic development, but serious commitment plays an important role as well. He believes that over the last five years he’s really hit his stride, but with a young family and a career as a marine electrician, he works hard to maintain this flow. He asserts that, “You don’t go down [into the studio] when you’re inspired—you’d never get anything done.” He paints in the evenings, after work.

Smith describes his studio as cave-like; a place to escape the outside world, and even the natural light. He says, “I get influence from my own work—the work builds—each piece is a building block to the next.” Each cycle of paintings begins with an intensive period of investigation, during which Smith works out his ideas on small sheets of paper. He has a box with literally thousands of these little paintings.

When he’s ready, he begins the larger pieces by first applying low relief texture onto his canvas using a home-made substance made from drywall mud and wood glue, and then he covers the entire object with black paint. Smith paints big, a trend inspired by his sign painting days. The largest, so far, is 96 by 54 inches. This is “Eagle Perch,” currently on display with other paintings at The Avenue Gallery, where Smith is represented. 

He uses acrylic paints and huge house painting brushes. He has a collection of regular-sized artist’s brushes, but muses, “I almost never use these anymore.” The brush strokes are strong and definitive and big. He speaks repeatedly about the importance of power. 

He points to a large work-in-progress on the wall, and indicates a series of gentle swishing marks in a red-brown colour that he intends to remove; it’s overworked and in danger of becoming subtle, he thinks. Similar to “Eagle Perch,” the main element in this work is a cruciform-like structure; very much like a bird laid out on its back with its wings extended. A powerful image, to be sure, but pitiful in its unnatural helplessness. Unlike “Eagle Perch,” which is gorgeously golden and blue, like a summer day, this work features an aggressive and dominant tangle of blacks and reds. 

It looks violent, but when this reviewer suggests that it looks a bit like an animal dead on the road, killed by some insurmountable force, and is perhaps a statement about human-powered destruction of the natural world, Smith crinkles his face and then laughs. For a long time. He says, pointing, “You asked a question about interpretation. Now you’ve answered your own question!”

And so we’re left alone again, to consider the painting simply for what it is: a series of shapes, of colours, of relationships. We’re left alone with our feelings. What a challenge!

Blu Smith’s paintings can be seen at The Avenue Gallery, 2184 Oak Bay Ave, 250-598-2184. See www.theavenuegallery.com and www.blusmithgallery.com.

Christine Clark is a writer, blogger and artist. Check out her art news, including photos of the recent Off the Grid Art Crawl, at http://artinvictoria.com.