To visit Gordon Smith at his home by West Vancouver’s Lighthouse Park is to find oneself engulfed in the surrounding woods, even as the Arthur Erickson architecture asserts itself around you. In his adjacent studio, Smith—a vital octogenarian— has now manoeuvred his masterful painting technique toward a level of abstraction that seems the inevitable result of a life lived intelligently both beside and inside nature.
Photograph a fireworks display with an old Polaroid camera and you’ll get something like the effect of Smith’s most abstract new offerings. White spangles, almost scratches, chatter about the canvas, covering the merest memory of a peat-and-brine landscape.
Three massive examples of this extreme daydream anchored his Equinox Gallery show. One of them, Beach Tangle 2, is a strange love child of Pollock and Monet. The bleached bone-white of driftwood logs has been rarified and cast like spun sugar over everything else. Any tidal pools and seaweed that might hover beneath are fully contained by Smith’s obsessive lines. A fulsome barrier is the result, with minuscule quadrants of colour straining through the mesh.
The paintings are a testament to what Smith’s close friends call a revolution in the painter’s work. Unlike many senior artists, Smith has continued to challenge his own accomplishments, telling me that “most of what came before is no good.” It’s a severe criticism that stuns you when you hear his tone; impatient about his own artistic future, he looks forward, like a 15-year-old opening a first tube of Winsor & Newton. When I call him a landscape painter, Smith nearly cringes: “I hope I’m not just that.” But the paintings aren’t “just” anything. There is a sadness to these new abstractions that is appropriate to today’s sense of a catastrophic finale to our centuries-long tryst with nature.
This is a review from the Summer 2007 issue of Canadian Art.