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ALLEN SMITH When I Consider How My Light is Spent...

untitled 2.0


When I consider how my light is spent, Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, And that one talent, which is death to hide, Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest he returning chide; “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best Bear His mild yoke, they serve him best: His state Is kingly; Thousands at His bidding speed, And post o’er land and ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait.” - John Milton (1608 - 1674)

Allen Smith @ untitled 2.0 February - March 2018


When I Consider How My Light is Spent... Allen Smith Copyright © 2018 Untitled 2.0 All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission of Untitled 2.0 All works completed between 2008-2018 by Allen Smith. When I Consider How My Light is Spent... {Untitled 2.0, February 2, 2018 – March 18, 2018} Special thanks to Robert A.B. Sawyer for essay: Robert A.B. Sawyer was born in Brooklyn, NY, brought up in Los Angeles, came of age in Santa Cruz and entered the real world in New York City. There he spent 30 years creating advertising for some of the world’s largest brands, as well as some you’d need a séance to find. Sawyer was invited to read in the 2017 Festival Internacional de Poesía en el Caribe, PoeMaRío, in Barranquilla, Colombia. He was a winner of the 2003 Discovery / The Nation Poetry Competition and has had poems published in The Nation, Margie: The Journal of American Poetry and New Millennium Writings. His poem, “How I know She’s Coming Home,” was selected by Natasha Trethewey for Meridian Best New Poets of 2007. He has also published work in Adbusters, Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, and The New York Times. Design & Photography by Duane Megyesi Untitled 2.0 A Gallery on the Corner of 6th & G Street 119 SE 6th Street, Grants Pass, OR 97526 DeWayne Thomas Lumpkin untitled2gallery.com


Noumenon:

in

Kantian philosophy - a thing as it is in itself,

as distinct from a thing as it is knowable by the senses

through phenomenal attributes.


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“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” - C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory Mr. Lewis’ observation arrived as so many things do today: It came uninvited and caught me unawares. It came to me via Twitter. I simply could not let it go for the better part of a day. A day I was thinking about Allen Smith and his paintings, drawings, and other work hung at Untitled 2.0. As I thought about Smith and his work, the words “solitude,” “silence,” and “private” rolled over and over in my head until everything stopped and I heard the word “quiet” loud and clear. It did not take a great leap of faith to imagine that Lewis, more than half a century ago, had heard clearly what is not only absent from our lives, but also even further away from our experience of art. At one time, essays like this were the word in quiet. The reader read as if he or she were listening. Read without the smart phone within reach. Read not racing to the conclusion. Read without the intention of grasping the definitive meaning. Today, I find most essays on art a kind of assault. Strange words and stranger theories have replaced once-thoughtful meditations with confrontational language grabbed from critical studies and sociology, as well as any and all terms born of the subsets of these disciplines. After this paragraph, you will not encounter words or ideas such as formal analysis, semiotics, discourse, or intersectionality. The fact is, I am not an explainer. Or at least not an explainer as Gertrude Stein used it to poke fun at Ezra Pound: “A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”

Noumenon 9: Symphony of Life [previous] Portrait of Matt [right]

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Noumenon 22


Toward that end, I thought the best service this essay might provide is to encourage an unaffected viewing of the work. The words that follow offer a meditation with few clues, let alone conclusions. As this is my map to the work rather than Smith’s own, I ask that you read this, if you read any further than this, as an Op-Ed. What follows are entirely my opinions. Where I refer to something in particular, I will mention the source, but there will be no footnotes, no references, per se. I will only ask you to recall Alfred Korzybski’s insight, “The map is not the territory.” Onement (3 Zips) Homage to Barnett Newman

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Later, I will rely on Smith’s own words to add some insights into his work, but I do not take them too literally. The truth resides in the work, and the work is reluctant to give up its secrets. What’s more, one does not have to be a psychotherapist to know that artists are famously ill-informed about the nature of their own work. This said, painters, particularly one as committed as Smith, can be relied on to provide a promising point of departure. A good first step is this excerpt Smith sent me, taken from an article written by the painter Sean Scully:

“(Jürgen) Habermas has also stated beautifully that a painting, especially an abstract painting, never entirely explains itself. This is important. This is part, an essential part, of its power. What starts out as a reluctant form of communication grows with time into an enduring quality. It cannot be worn out. It cannot be used up since it is not trying to convince through information. (As if explanation and information were convincing.) A mysterious embodiment, it remains silent, yet potentially potent, whilst never entirely giving up its mystery.” Smith finds in Scully’s writing a persuasive metaphor for the “enduring quality” of abstract paintings, which is another way of describing the work’s true worth. That painters seek and find insights into their work from other painters or sympathetic critics is not surprising. Our lives, when considered honestly, are mysteries, often lived to the end without a satisfactory resolution. Even those who express themselves in paint rely on words—although there are artists, such as Barbara Kruger, who depend on words—but ultimately, in Smith’s case, any revelation, explanation, admission, or omission will be found in the thing itself.

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Noumenon 16: Angel Island


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NAKED ART A romantic, I prefer my art made in the dark. Which is why I find Deborah Solomon’s observation in “Jasper Johns Still Doesn’t Want to Explain His Art,” published on February 7, 2018, in The New York Times, particularly telling.

“Mr. Johns himself is loath to offer biographical interpretations of his work—or any interpretations, for that matter. He is famously elusive and his humor tends toward the sardonic. He once joked that, of the dozens of books that have been written about his art, his favorite one was written in Japanese. What he liked is that he could not understand it.” This essay is a request: I ask that you not simply look at Smith’s work but stand before it as if you were naked; in fact, as naked as the work itself. Don’t allow anything to get between you and the work. Take your time. Let your eyes wander and your mind follow. Let the work do its work unassisted. You do not need to know the name of the work, although later it’s likely you’ll want to. You do not need to know how the image was created and how it came to be as it appears. Don’t seek or make comparisons to other painters or paintings. Simply enjoy the quiet that painting makes demonstrable. As you find your way into the painting, come to your own conclusions. Consider the advice that the art dealer Michael Findlay gives in his book, Seeing Slowly: “When a voice of authority interprets a work of art, we need the courage to tell ourselves it is merely a suggestion and that the only truth is what we see.” In other words, when it comes to your experience of art, you are the ultimate authority.

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Noumenal Landscape: Blue Ocean


When given license, painters slaughter sacred cows. As unthinkable as it may sound today, Michelangelo da Caravaggio was described as the “antichrist of painting.” One might say that every epoch can be defined by its succès de scandale. The modernists gave up their souls to look into the ghost in the machine for their inspiration, while the surrealists mined our unconscious. Today, the contemporary artist leaps down every rabbit hole and trespasses with impunity. Nothing is forbidden.

The irony is that we’re all postmodern now. We want paintings that self-destruct. It brings us pleasure. We want the subversive. It brings us pleasure. We want frigidity and impotence, passion and priapism. Which is to admit, we want nothing at all, because we believe in nothing at all. We believe in nothing at all because we’ve listened to too many experts, read too many gallery catalogues, and perhaps glanced at the captions of too many coffee table art books. Nevertheless, our lack of desire has not upset our appetite. We crave more and more art, and more is provided.

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PAINTERS PAINT I am not entirely certain that serious, which is to say, noncommercial works of art, have a future. We have become quick to dismiss. The old truths dismissed as provincial and bourgeois hang on thin strands. All traditional narratives are suspect, particularly if they lead to a now-renounced truth. Modern work was justified as a repudiation of the sacred cows and gods with lead feet that led us to carnage, most famously the First and Second World Wars. Contemporary art is a bare-fisted Battle Royale, fought mainly in academia, in which all traditions, all assumptions concerning all aspects of humanity, are called into question.

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Reflection (Portrait of Cynthia) [above] Noumenon 13: Deepwater Horizon

Perhaps I should not be too concerned. Painters continue to paint, to cover surfaces, but toward what end? The only end that makes sense to me is pleasure. The pleasure in the work is real and the complementary pleasure in enjoying another’s work is just as real. As noted above, we are the beneficiaries of millennia of perpetual motion. Painters paint, and we are compelled to look at their work. The economic consequences of this ceaseless activity have become unavoidable. Painting, the most quiet of activities, has joined the cacophony of everyday life. It is a multibillion-dollar global enterprise, and it requires all the moving parts employed by every global business, from innovation and marketing to fraud and theft.


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The proverbial pendulum has been set in motion. Therefore, it will come as no surprise that we appear ready to repudiate the last 50 years of frantic looking. The Slow Art Movement has followed the Slow Food Movement. There are Slow Art days, books, articles, and exercises. (As every movement needs a celebrity, see Arden Reed, the author of Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell.) Then, there’s Slow Looking, by Peter Clothier, who developed the “One Hour/One Painting” engagement, and, on a similar if more extensive theme, there’s Shari Tishman’s Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation. The Oedipal impulse has been aroused, and we want our quiet back. But what does any of this have to do with Allen Smith? Everything and nothing at all. Smith is a painter. He has real gifts, which are apparent when one stands in front of his work. He can draw, which is increasingly rare at a time when art schools are questioning whether it is necessary for students to know how to draw. In spite of his gifts, the odds that Mr. Smith will succeed in the most conventional sense of the word, are quite low. He is not, in the least, discouraged. I am loath to use the word “artist” as it is both overburdened and underappreciated. Although Smith paints, draws, writes, and also thinks deeply about art, for the purposes of this essay, I will refer to him as a painter. When we first spoke, he directed me to an observation made by the British painter, Ian McKeever, Royal Academician:

“For painting is first and foremost a declaration and display of temperament. Before all else, it is this we feel when we engage as a viewer with a painting.” I can imagine a number of reasons why these words have particular meaning to Smith. The man looks at his paintings. He engages in the process of making them. He looks often and from many angles. He revises like a poet. He will work on a piece for a year, and return to spend more time on it. I believe his surfaces are a mirror and his gaze is not that of a narcissist but a philosopher. As for temperament, I imagine Smith working as an indefatigable detective. He asks, asks again, plays good cop and bad cop. The process has a beginning but no real end. The question is the ultimate question: What is the there there? If this is a conversation, I imagine it can become heated, but it cannot be avoided.

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Noumenal Landscape: Coastal Color Band [previous, left] Noumenon 8 [previous, right] Metempirical Storm (Red Line)


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STILL POINT To see requires time and to feel requires time. The gallery is a time machine, not one that takes you forward or backward, but one where time is made to stand still. The painter would slow down time - the most valuable and, ironically, the least valued of human possessions. To appreciate Smith’s work requires that you take the time to see, and so feel it. His painting brings to mind T.S. Eliot’s famous lines from Burnt Norton: “At the still point of the turning world …” A still point exists in front of every Smith painting. Smith will have you slow down for obvious reasons but also a less obvious one. He asks, how do we experience people? Why are we attracted to some and not to others? How do we recognize their qualities? Ultimately, we trust our instincts, and those same instincts are at work when we approach a painting. Smith wants us to look in his work for character, just as we do when we’re introduced to a stranger. There is a conversation between viewer and painting. This interaction has presence, is palpable, if the work has substance.

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Noumenon 15: Incomplete Understanding

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Substance in this context may be as difficult to feel as it is to articulate. We have, too often, been taught to judge work by what is solely on the surface. As a result, we confuse a painter’s skill with the deeper interaction Smith wants you to experience. So, while knowing how to draw, an understanding of composition, and a knowledge of materials is critical, skill is not, in and of itself, sufficient. Something more must exist if it can silence the noise and distraction that we carry with and within us. Smith’s work includes a broad range of paintings, large canvases, and works on paper. He works with oil and in mixed media. His concerns include studies of scale and proportion; the play between different colors. An understanding of his concerns is a place to start but not to finish. Here, you become acquainted with the artist. You meet Smith in his totality, standing at the “still point” of years of labor. The work hung before you is purely about the work. The man and the work should not be conflated. The show is about the tension that exists between the two. To come to this understanding takes time, and we are insatiable consumers of time. The painting asks you to push away the plate in front of you and savor what you’ve eaten rather than ask for more. Looking, our eyes are continually refreshed. Smith’s works on canvas, composed in various dimensions, framing various colors, compositions, and ideas, will likely be entirely new to you. So I suggest you treat them as something new. As I mentioned above, meet and greet them as you would an appealing stranger at a party.

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Noumenon 14: Icons [above] Seeking Unity... [right]


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INTRODUCING NOUMENON I am particularly sensitive to the Tyranny of Commentary. I grow more so as it increasingly seems that works of art must be explained, put in context, compared and contrasted. I believe there’s an inverse relationship between one’s knowledge of current theory and the experience of quiet mentioned above. There is no doubt in my mind that we ought to learn as much about art as is possible. To learn the principles that have informed the artists we admire, and to seek in works answers to questions, fears, or joys unique to your life. The admonition, regarding the Tyranny of Commentary, is that it often prevents you from being present. Smith wants you present. In the gallery, standing before his work, standing as I wrote above, naked. If you silence your internal dialogue, if you let yourself see and feel, I believe each will occur simultaneously.

All this talk of seeing and feeling does not preclude a deep intellectual impulse and framework around much of Smith’s work that is derived from Immanuel Kant’s concept of Noumenon. The term “noumenon” is generally used when contrasted with, or in relation to, the term phenomenon, which refers to anything that can be apprehended by or is an object of the senses. Modern philosophy has generally been skeptical of the possibility of knowledge independent of the senses, but Immanuel Kant gave this point of view its canonical expression: the noumenal world may exist, but it is completely unknowable through human sensation. In Kantian philosophy, the unknowable noumenon is often linked to the unknowable “thing-in-itself” (in Kant’s German, Ding an sich), although how to characterize the nature of the relationship is a question yet open to some controversy.

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Regarding Noumenon and its variations: Smith discovered Immanuel Kant’s words in 2014 and has since painted a number of works with Noumenon in the title. There are Noumenal Landscapes and Noumenon paintings identified by number. Most of these works can be seen, at a glance, as pleasingly colorful abstractions. Closer inspection reveals distinct bands that separate individual color fields. There are also horizontal stripes that once may have been dominant but later were imperfectly concealed. For Smith, Kant’s metaphysics lend credence to his own work, in which he asks viewers to approach without preconceived notions. The painting is a thing-in-itself. A basis for phenomenon that begins with an experience of the work. The Noumenon is the truth behind what we experience. We proceed, informed not only by the information we’ve consciously processed but also by things we intuit. It is a classic case of a whole being both different and greater than the sum of its parts.

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Following this logic, the work addresses the question of painting as object. What exactly is the thing Smith has made for us? What is it that we are looking at? What of it can be felt? What are the words that best describe the tension between the two?

Noumenon 18: Heaven/Super-Ego

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Smith’s work is layered, literally consisting of old and new things “banded” together. There are bolder colors and murkier hues. There are outlines and traces that have been covered over. A closer look and you see more and learn to read the paintings as if they consisted of text. Some things stand out; others recede before your eyes. Time or, rather, its passage, is present in the work. The puzzles regarding Smith’s attachment to the words “noumenon” and “noumenal” and the difficulties attached to them, are part of his paintings’ charm. If we trust exclusively in our five senses, we will confuse our immediate experience with reality. Noumenon 17: Earth/Ego [prvious] Noumenon 19: Hell/Id

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Clockwise from left: Noumenon 28 Noumenon 27 Noumenon 20 Noumenon 25

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Smith asks what is ultimately knowable and what will remain hidden? His work is an invitation to explore the paintings and to find as much or more in them than he has. (A process for Smith that is not limited by time, as we’ve learned of his practice of returning to a particular work over and over again.) Art. If we could only resist the temptation to finish the work as we think best. It is a challenge, as we’ve been taught to trust the curator’s or the critic’s final word. Smith suggests there is no final word. One of the most interesting and satisfying shows I’ve seen in recent years was Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible in 2016 at the The Met Breuer in New York. The exhibition “examined a subject that is critical to artistic practice: the question of when a work of art is finished.” The show introduced to me a new idea, “no finito” or intentionally unfinished. This is a term I would apply to Smith’s Noumenon series.

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Noumenon 23: We Love Each Other


To help me understand his methods and ends, Smith suggested I read a review of Squeak Carnwath by Tatiana Istomina in Art in America. Smith told me, “I’m a big fan of Carnwath’s work—surfaces speak to character and humanness.” Smith’s concern with character is an important trait because it is an atypical preoccupation in our daily lives where concessions to power trump values, such as honesty, trustworthiness, and integrity. What I found most interesting in the article was the observation:

“Carnwath’s pieces demand sustained viewing. The abundance of visual and textual information seems to imply that some kind of message is there waiting to be deciphered. The clues, however, do not point in a single direction.” I think this description could be applied to Smith’s work as well, although I believe Carnwath has a not-so-secret desire to use her work as a means to tell her story, including her secrets. Smith is not an exhibitionist.

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SLOWING DOWN Earlier I quoted the art dealer, Michael Findlay’s, book Seeing Slowly. There, Findlay expresses his belief that art is fundamentally sensory, experiential, and emotional, but that nearly every sector of the art world tries to change art into something else. Findlay offers two additional insights: The first is that understanding is made up of experience not just information. “Facts quoted from books and works seen in reproduction are nothing more than information. Only the living acquaintance with art in its original form can stimulate your senses and thereby engage your emotions and open your mind.” The second is that “Real knowledge and secure judgment comes from a lot of looking and nothing else.” He adds, “We do not need to know about the painting. We do not need to identify the painting. What we need is to experience the painting with an affect that is sensuous.” Findlay’s ideas have long been incorporated into Smith’s work. To Smith’s way of thinking, “Understanding the work is less important than experiencing it. Understanding is the enemy of wonder, unless it leads to further mysteries.”

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Noumenon 21


X-rays, spectroscopy, FTIR microscopy, and other technologies are used to find deeper truths about a particular painting. The lessons learned may expose a forgery, and it may make for fascinating reading, but I don’t believe this knowledge will enhance your experience of the work once you’ve come face to face with it. Science in the 21st century is analogous to Reason in the 16th and 17th centuries. The former seeks exactitude, as the latter sought to eliminate superstition from people’s minds. Smith’s paintings are counter-intuitive to many artists of his generation who believe that art itself is commentary and has an obligation to reveal. Unfortunately, what these artists hope to reveal is a viewer’s complacency and also complicity in historical crimes. There is a masochistic appeal to these works, and if any pleasure or quiet is found, it is accidental. As for the growing role of science and technology in art commentary, I believe it has become a fetishistic compulsion and antithetical to a viewer’s appreciation, let alone apprehension, of the work in question. There is only so much time to enjoy a painting, and the curators and conservators prefer you spend it with them. Smith believes you should spend your time with the paintings. For Smith, painting articulates what it means to be human and, ironically, he explores this in a premodern way. This is not to say he is unaware of contemporary artists or their methods and ambitions. Rather, that his painting is not a mechanical process. For example, he’ll notice that his visual language may be inspired by Barnett Newman’s “zips”, but he’ll notice it after the fact. Awareness is an afterthought. The painter’s relationship with his media is straightforward: Paint is applied, it dries, the work is revisited, and as the process moves forward, it reveals new mental states while also documenting time. Smith is not in a hurry. He is amused by impatience. He told me, “Moments, they come and go, come and go. I may have started a piece in 2014 and finished it in 2017. And that painting will embody all the changes in my life during that time. And in that lies the mystery, because there is something there right in front of you, but also something beyond. When you try to explain it, something is lost.”

When Smith returns to the notion of Noumenon, he thinks of it in terms of “quiet work.” He’ll explain quiet by saying, “We don’t need more power, information, or noise. Those things knock us down with stress and turn our attention to ourselves. Painting can redirect our attention, remind us of the wonder in the world.” He believes that a painting hung on a wall is not a passive object, but one that waits for our attention. We become aware of it, and awareness is a gift. Flowers

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CONNECTING THE DOTS Smith continues to experiment, to crisscross genres, to play. His landscapes are bold as they are pleasurable to transverse. They are sensuous and honest and by honest I mean they are inspired by Smith’s love of the outdoors. He goes to the ocean and feels spiritually renewed. He wakes up on a lake and feels revived. His natural world is not an abstraction; it is felt in the place itself. Smith’s landscapes are inspired by the Hudson River School and what they saw—nature’s majesty as evidence of God’s invisible hand at work. They made epic paintings worthy of a new country fulfilling its destiny. These painters showed Smith how to reveal what is concealed. They knew a presence that could not be seen could be intuited, and that paint could give it a reality. The spiritual is never far from Smith’s explorations. One of his important influences is Wassily Kandinsky, whose work over the course of his career became increasingly abstract, until it became entirely non-representational. It may seem a curious choice but it becomes more obvious the more one learns about his attempts to place the spiritual on the canvas. Kandinsky showed Smith how color and lines could make manifest spiritual qualities that otherwise were hidden. Smith’s paintings are ultimately a dialectical exercise. He approaches a subject in good faith with a set of questions. His paintings become answers or objects that encourage further questions. He expects viewers to experience his work differently. Although there is intention and meaning in his work, he believes there are any number of experiences that are acceptable. One aspect of Smith’s work that I appreciate in these noisy times is the absence of provocation. His work doesn’t require the concealment of shortcomings. He says his work is not about challenging or dismissing another person’s values but rather, quite the opposite. Smith intends his work to serve as an invitation.

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Self-Portrait in Abstraction [above] Self-Portrait with Time [right]

He feels a call to paint as others feel a call to some higher service. His confidence enables him to play, but not as a dilettante or one inclined to show off his virtuosity. His motivation is deep, almost mystical. He enjoys variety or variation as an oenophile or a gourmet pursues a new wine or rare dish. As an artist he is interested in all things, the oldest - and - the youngest thing. His curiosity can be problematic. One might look at a painting, say, Portrait of Matt, and Lucien Freud will come to mind. But Smith is more concerned with finding the technical answer to a problem presented by the figurative than by a comparison with another artist. Or, one might glance at Noumenon 8 and feel, as I did, in the presence of a particular slate-colored background in a work by Cy Twombly.


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When pressed, Smith will admit to commonalities, but he insists a viewer not confuse ideas or superficial similarities he chances on and a work that is derivative. Smith does not have to defend his work. The hard work, authority, the depth and experimentation makes his ownership clear. The larger truth is that gifted artists presented with the same question will likely arrive at very similar solutions. In the end, Smith makes paintings and only when he looks up discovers meaning. The next task is to persuade people that the work matters. If they see it does, there is no need to explain the work. Which he finds is a great relief.

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In between work, Smith educates himself, seeks out other artists. He accepts that there are things he’ll never know, or likely ever see—there is no Museum Mile in Medford—and he thinks that’s wonderful. Wonderful? Yes, another reason to go back to work. There are always more dots to connect and always, as everyone who has spent time in the woods knows, another path to cut. One new path involves works on paper, perhaps notations on paper. No it is not new, but new isn’t really the point. The question is: Is it right? On a purely practical level, Smith says he could not make work without some form of writing, drawing or preliminary study. So if paper is in hand, why not figure out some way to use it? The same is true for small works, which Smith refers to as transcripts. He told me, “I use them to have a dialogue with myself.” Small works, paper, allow Smith to touch on different concerns, and, if nothing else, they are worksheets or records. Another way to connect the dots. At the end of the day, Smith reminds you that there’s no law forcing you to do what’s expected, just as there’s no law that forbids you from deviating from the norm. There’s only the work and the quiet that resides in it. Noumenon 5

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Morris Graves Artist Residency


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untitled 2.0 / When I Consider How My Light is Spent... / Allen Smith  

untitled 2.0 / When I Consider How My Light is Spent... / Allen Smith