Gemma Smith: Rhythm Sequence

‘The rhythm of relations of colour and size makes the absolute appear in the relativity of time and space.’ – Piet Mondrian (1919)

Drawing attention to the pervasive presence of depth and form, colour is a core ingredient in Gemma Smith’s practice, which oscillates between painting and sculpture. In her exploration of the sculptural properties of colour and its ability to distort the formalist conception of the flat picture plane, Smith finds and sequentially creates movement and spatial incongruities in three-dimensions; an interplay of pictorial depth and geometric abstraction in what she terms an ‘adaptable’ quality.

Gemma Smith, Flow (Reverse shadow), 2016, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 180cm. Courtesy the artist, Milani Gallery, Brisbane and UNSW Galleries, Sydney

Smith’s dissent of painterly convention is seen throughout her practice. Her earliest paintings display fragmented patterns with crystalline formations on chessboards that explore shifting planes and game-play, questioning movement and decision-making within the composition. We then traverse to her Adaptables series (2005-08), made of plywood and painted in radiant pinks, oranges, reds and greens. Their flexible modular framework offers countless reconfigurations, forming and reforming, pushing and pulling new sculptural positions. In 2008, Smith reinterprets these changeable designs in her Boulder series. Constructed from multi-coloured translucent acrylic, polyhedrons dramatically transform when viewed from different angles, and refracted, kaleidoscopic illusions as prisms of light are projected around the exhibiting space. Colours unfold into their own combinations and interactions, creating new and unpredictable relationships.

Tangle Paintings (2009-13) are a partial departure from Smith’s prior hardedge, solid designs. Here, the artist uses spontaneous, looping brushstrokes, an entanglement of tertiary colours, thick line work, and spatial disparities. Smith’s application of acrylic paint, although gestural and subdued remains systematic and calculated in regards to her compositional approach, as serpentine-like arrangements undulate towards each other and intertwine across the canvas, fashioning numerous planar surfaces and varying degrees of volume, while white spaces direct the viewer to the dissemination and dimensionality of each colour.

Gemma Smith, Goldens, 2018, acrylic and oil on board, 53 x 45cm. Courtesy the artist, Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney and UNSW Galleries, Sydney

In recent works such as Goldens (2018) and Infinity Painting (2018), Smith turns to monochromatic application, exploring one specific colour or tone. Through subtle, yet expressive brushstrokes and mixture of hues, Smith examines values changing across the surface of each work as well as its texture, nuance and meaning. In Eleven (2018), she covers the canvas with an all-white coating. In what seems to be a drift in her usual methodology, various shades of white are visible and elevate what first appears to be a dull, flat surface to one of depth, perspective and rhythm.

From hinged plastics and wooden boards to expressionistic brushwork, Smith’s interest in sculptural properties has, and is strongly impacted by her use of colour and its visceral nature. Her repetition of elements and continual study of colour theory is the subject of ‘Rhythm Sequence’, the first survey of Smith’s artistic career featuring over 50 works of small boards and large canvases. Curated by José Da Silva, the exhibition is outlined as a complete trajectory of Smith’s oeuvre outlined ‘from 2003 and its experimentation with the language of painting to her reworking of abstract codes and styles, as well as the testing of colour and form, pictorial depth and formal and improvised gestures.’

By dismissing a chronological thematic approach to the exhibition, Da Silva has focused on the progression of Smith’s ‘playful engagement with ideas of juxtaposition and disjunction, and her enduring interest in the act of painting itself.’

UNSW Galleries
15 March to 1 June, 2019