The art of abstract with Gemma Smith


Gemma Smith in her Studio. Photo Credit: Anna Kucera
Gemma Smith in her Studio. Photo Credit: Anna Kucera

One of Australia’s most celebrated and beloved abstract artists, Gemma Smith sits down with MiNDFOOD to discuss her abstract painting and what inspires her work.

After studying at Sydney College of Arts, University of Sydney and then Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Smith undertook a colour theory course at Parson’s School of Design, New York. “Colour and its interactions are endlessly fascinating” says Smith. “Context completely changes everything. Through working daily with colour in paint, my experience of colour in the world around me has become richer.” From geometrical shapes in jewel-like colours in her early work, to working with colours ‘straight from the tube’ in her Tangle series, Gallery Director Sarah Cottier said Smith keeps colour “active”. “Perceiving colour is like exercising a muscle that is enhanced by use. I feel that one can become attuned to perceiving colour in a more nuanced way,” explains Smith.

What initially drew Smith to abstract art was she liked the “challenge of making a painting without referencing something already existing in the world”. Her idea for works usually comes out of playing around with materials, and experimenting with the process. “It is formed along the way” she says. “With my current series of paintings, I’d say that there’s 5% success rate. The other 95% of works get painted over or scrapped.”

The Sydney based painter is currently showing her first career survey exhibition, Rhythm Sequence at UNSW Galleries until 1 June. Rhythm Sequence features more than 50 paintings and sculptures drawn from collections across Australia. Included are a collection of Smith’s earliest paintings depicting crystalline forms and geometric compositions on chessboards; sculptural ‘boulders’ and ‘adaptables’ where colours are reconfigured and interact; as well as hard edge and gestural works that explore the blocking, translucency and opacity of paints. The exhibition also includes Smith’s most recent works in which colour is barely perceptible. Rather than reflect a chronology, the exhibition is sequenced to emphasise Smith’s playful engagement with ideas of juxtaposition and disjunction, and her enduring interest in the act of painting itself. “This exhibition – curated by Jose Da Silva – shows a selection of my work, looking back over 15 years of my practice. Really, since I began to use colour in 2003. Many of the paintings have never been exhibited in Sydney before. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity for a survey show at this stage of my career. Working towards this show has been a time to reflect on my practice. The artworks will not be shown in a chronological way, so I look forward to surprising relationships between the works once they are installed” says Smith.

The exhibition comes on the back of her current MCA installation where Smith unveiled a massive 15-metre-long brilliantly coloured geometric installation last September for the MCA’s Foyer Wall Commission Foyer Wall Commission. She based the commission on her earlier Tangle Paintings. “I decided to bring the method I use in my studio to the large wall work. I let intuition play a role, and for decisions to be made in situ, such as with the composition and scale of the brushstrokes, the final width of the lines, and the amount of exposed underpainting”. For the commission Smith used a wide brush attached to an extension pole to fluidly paint the brush strokes that formed the underlying gesture of the painting – during museum hours, in the foyer space. “It felt like some kind of Tai Chi style painting performance – kind of at odds with my studio practice which is very private.”

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