Anj Smith grapples with problems about style, but does so in a theatrical or even melodramatic way, although the intimate scale and bewitching, jewel-like intricacy of her treatment of the surface of the painting work against this theatricality to a certain extent. Smith explained to an interviewer about the “social obsessions” that pervade her work, that the “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.” Clearly this ambivalent self-consciousness regarding the fraught quality of “surface” in everyday life finds its analogue in the treatment of “surface” as both the salient signifying site of painting and the site of its dissolution into pure sensation. In fact, as striking as Smith’s imagery can be, it is the pictorial surface itself that is the most remarkable and, indeed, the most “absorbing and seductive” aspect of the work. Darkly luminous, the paintings draw you in close, and yet they never quite satisfy the desire for proximity they incite. The hard, glossy look denies warmth, keeping the eye at a certain distance; and close up, certain rough areas of impasto take on a threateningly aggressive appearance, as if the gaze were in danger of scraping itself raw against their lunar and inhospitable crags and furrows. (Perhaps it is against these harsh surfaces that the ragged pieces of designer fabrics that appear in some of the paintings were torn-as if a representation could be damaged by a physical reality.) But one’s momentary urge to look away may be arrested by certain passages done with the most delicate and loving touch imaginable, areas that seem to have been elaborated beyond all necessity by the sensual and fluid delicacy of a single-haired brush with an attention to detail that seems almost prurient. It is an oversimplification, really, even to speak of “a surface” in the singular; what the fascinated eye soon detects is that the surface is really a concatenation of surfaces, almost a montage of textures, where it can lose all sense of scale or place. It is in the sequence and rhythm of these that the particularity of each painting resides, as much as in the imagery that gives rise to them and that perhaps constitutes a sort of allegorical discourse about them. In other words, it’s clear that for Smith, painting is not a certain kind of object that gives rise to a certain kind of image; rather, she uses certain kinds of image in order to produce a certain kind of object-which the images then communicate something about.
Peculiar geometric structures seem to spontaneously generate themselves out of the surrounding plant life, as in the background of Low Equus Hum, 2006, or in those paintings in which we witness a bare bush that’s somehow been transformed into a sort of shelving unit for the display of animal specimens (foxes in Carnivora Delux, 2006, for instance) – are they alive, or rather naturalistically posed taxidermy animals? In any case, such paintings flaunt an emblematic or heraldic aspect, yet they are hardly didactic in content. Odd little details secreted here and there do not contradict the main image so much as, in hypnotically drawing the viewer in, they distract from it. In fact, there is no content in these paintings unless it has already been subsumed under style. Although the tension between nature and artifice is central to Smith’s work, nature only ever puts in an appearance under the guise of artifice; no animal can be distinguished from its stuffed and mounted corpse- which is not to say that the tension dissolves, but rather that the tension is always internal to the conflicted notion of style or artifice (perhaps like the dispute over the ethics of wearing fur, which can only ever have an impact on fashion if it becomes an argument over whether it should be fashionable to wear fur, thus transforming an ethical dispute into a stylistic one).
This reduction of life to style, to surface, becomes inseparable from the thought of death, and this thought seems to be present in every brushstroke of Smith’s paintings, though often enough in a highly eroticized manner that might have appealed to those Romantic dreamers for whom love and death were sometimes interchangeable forms of transcendence. That all this verges on kitsch goes without saying. Smith wouldn’t have it any other way. If we experience nature through taxidermy, and fashion nothing but some tattered rags, can art be preserved from travesty and decadence? One loves them all notwithstanding. There is a fully illustrated catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. -Excerpted from Everyday Grotesque by Barry Schwabsky.