A stalwart of Australia’s contemporary art world, Jeffrey Smart is without doubt one of the most outstanding Australian painters of the modern age. With a career spanning several decades, he has produced a body of work which reflects and comments upon contemporary life with what’s become an iconic and instantly recognisable style. The Samstag Museum of Art and Carrick, in partnership with Tarrawarra Museum of Art, present ‘Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940-2011’, a definitive survey exhibition of over sixty of Smart’s paintings.
His works feature industrial wastelands and concrete streetscapes with precise attention to outlines, composition and geometry. While the work often depicts manmade structures, the compositions are frequently devoid of human presence – or at a minimal with only a solitary figure. The pictures are still and vast, the pictorial plane filled with an expanse of colour blocking.
As to what makes his work so compelling and distinct is the very compositional values of architecture, geometrics, colour and the components that are continuously evident in his work: manmade structures such as roadways and apartment blocks or public buildings, with only the hint of the occasional figure. Smart has previously described the inclusion of figures in his paintings as a mere compositional ploy. The human element is not what is important in these images and there is no real sense of narrative despite the repetition of some characters in many of his works. Their purpose is to give the viewer a sense of scale or act as a counterweight to the architecture in his images.
Cahill Expressway (1962) is an impassive portrait of an isolated man in an urban landscape, the viewer does not know the identity of the man, let alone his purpose. Standing alone he can only be seen as a symbol of alienation in an impersonal urban landscape. Smart’s images are inherently cinematic – reading like fragments of a larger narrative. With subsequent viewings, the painting seems to take on more complexity – the road becomes a metaphor for modernity, travel, and emptiness. Road signs produce direct instruction on place, speed and direction and create the sense of movement in the stillness of the scene.
Likewise in Rushcutters Bay Baths (1961) the figures are disengaged with the viewer and their surrounds. They’re more prominent within the composition, yes, but their frozen actions are vignettes within the broader picture. The suspended water polo goal net, tattered and precarious can be read as a symbol of the fragility the manmade – and the human figure – has in the greater landscape.
In Smart’s work calculation, form and structure always dominate. Horizons can lie beyond the apparent limits of the scene; or a fence, a building or a poster stretches across the whole width of the canvas confounding spatial expectations. Within these frames each element is individually rendered, reinforcing a sense of separation, even isolation. Smart changes the geometry of his space and withholds information, allowing the viewer a pathway to create their own stories and meanings, thus transcending time and place.
The simplicity that emanates from his complex compositions traces his experieces and his perspectives. ‘Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940-2011’ takes audiences on a journey through Smart’s vast career. The exhibition reinforces his mastery of painting – colour, form, geometry and texture. However, above all else, this survey presents a timeless body of work that knows no geographical or generational boundaries.
Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art
October 11 to December 14, 2012
Rushcutters Bay Baths, 1961, oil on board, 56 x 92cm
Cahill Expressway, 1962, oil on plywood, 81.9 x 111.3cm
Courtesy the artist, National Gallery of Victoria, and Australian Galleries