Studio Visit: David Brian Smith

Shepherds and colonialism, appropriation and the Romantic tradition

On the morning that we meet, there is a single painting (Untitled, all works 2012) hanging on the wall of David Brian Smith’s east London studio. It looks a little abandoned against the cold expanse of concrete, like the solitary shepherd in the foreground who gazes wistfully beyond the canvas, or the lost sheep of the biblical parable separated from its flock, awaiting redemption. Turning slightly away from us, the shepherd is seemingly unaware of the landscape that gathers around him like a blizzard, an iridescent flurry of bubblegum pastels and fluoro-brights. This is the latest – unfinished and possibly last – in a series of shepherd compositions that the artist has worked and reworked over a number of years. Smith had considered calling it The Last Shepherd – a title at once epically Romantic and intensely personal – but decided against such a definitive statement about this cycle of work. Born into a Shropshire farming family, he is more familiar than most with the dark dawns, heavy boots and unsociable reality of the profession. Still, the association with the figure of the artist is inevitable.

In the months leading up to his opening show at Carl Freedman’s new London space, Smith spent long days in the high, grey-walled confines of his studio with only the shepherds (for a time, he was working on up to ten canvases simultaneously) for company. The studio is large and sparse with a note-scattered desk at one end, and when the sun is at just the right height, a clean, warm light floods in from the skylights above. But, as he tells me, ‘It’s a lonely occupation, being a shepherd. I can certainly project myself onto that person.’ There is a particular intensity to Smith’s methodology that may be the product of his work ethic or the biographical content that he is grappling with, or both. The works build in series, repeated iterations of a single source photograph, which is obsessively re-worked, re-situated, re-inhabited. Smith talks about having to work to own an image. His process of appropriation is gradual; he’s careful not to sever ties to the original context and its particular personal poignancy. The shepherd came from a photocopied clipping from the Daily Express’s 1933 Armistice Issue. It was sent to Smith by his mother, who found it under the floorboards of the house where the family relocated following the death of his father and sale of the farm in 2005. The photograph was captioned: ‘My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me,’ a line from Lamentations that Smith has appropriated for several of his own titles. This is clearly an image that carries weight, which is exaggerated by the biblical gravitas that Smith cautiously acknowledges whilst making it clear that his interest is anecdotal rather than scriptural. Rifling through a folder of source images, Smith shows me a more recent series of photographs, staged not far from where his family used to farm, in which he poses in farming attire surrounded by a flock of sheep. There are eight of these compositions, each the source of a different painting, in which the personal and the archetypal intertwine in a slippery play of fathers and sons and romantic heroes. 

Smith1.jpg

Goodwill And The Unknown Man, 2012, oil on herringbone linen 180 x 150 cm

Goodwill And The Unknown Man, 2012, oil on herringbone linen 180 x 150 cm

The latest object of Smith’s attentions comes from a collection of photographs taken by his great-grandfather, Fred Goodwill, a colonial clergyman and amateur photographer in India. (A double doubling: the artist son of a shepherd, painting himself in the guise of a shepherd; the grandson of a pastor tending the congregational flock.) Goodwill sits astride an enormous anthill that surges up from the foreground, dwarfing the unidentified man who poses stiffly beside it, serving as a man-sized measuring stick. In its juxtaposition of starched Edwardian sobriety and the weirdly wonderful tropical territories, the photograph itself is perfectly surreal, an unwitting poke at the absurd imperial pretensions underpinning the whole colonial enterprise. Paintings such as I’m in a Dancing Mood and Goodwill and the Unknown Man take the wide-eyed mysticism of the exotic and run with it, into effervescent, oscillating dreamscapes executed with a crystalline, hallucinatory clarity.

Wandering alone above a shimmering sea of fog, Smith’s shepherd bows his head to the Romantic tradition of Samuel Palmer or Caspar David Friedrich, but this quiet homage is counterpointed by an abstract insistence on the primacy of the paint itself and of its material support. Next to a large, bare table set up in the centre of the studio, Smith explains that the backgrounds are painted while the canvas is laid flat so that the thinned layers of paint which accumulate in feathery drifts don’t run into one another. Each radiant hue of his technicolour palette – diaphanous, shimmering blues; waxy yellows; close, hazy greens – is kept clean. In this he is very different to Peter Doig, a name mentioned by the artist in passing, whose muggy, felt-edged romanticism is an underlying influence. The compositions may retain the associative and emotional baggage of their source images, but the paintings themselves are lean, precise. If the Lord is the shepherd, for Smith the devil is in the detail. Each meticulous brushstroke works to accentuate the warp and weft of the heavy herringbone canvas on which he paints, resulting in an ecstatic, hyper-textured, mackerel-sky weave that streams off the canvas, barely able to contain itself. Neatly in keeping with the pastoral theme, herringbone canvas is normally used for countryside wear, though one senses that Smith’s preference is more a result of his painterly sensibility than any thematic over-wringing. He confides: ‘You know, I also like fashion; I like Missoni. This painting technique came as much from Missoni as anything else.’

In the foreground, the figures shimmer into being, like pictures forming from the snow-storm of a broken television set or beaming in from another world entirely. Although yoked to the ground by Smith’s tight and carefully complementary palette, they hang off it and are somehow set apart. Like the sultry beauty who is untroubled to find herself naked on a velvet chaise-longue in the rustling depths of Henri Rousseau’s crepuscular jungle in The Dream (1910), Smith’s borrowed protagonists are unfazed by their exuberant surroundings. A world away from the idle hills of Shropshire, they face us silently, matter-of-factly, giving nothing of the game away. 

David Brian Smith is an artist based in London, UK. In 2012, he had a solo show, ‘Goodwill and The Unknown Man’, at Carl Freedman Gallery, London. Recent group exhibitions include, ‘You Play the Line, I Play the Sand’, Galerie VidalCuglietta, Brussels, Belgium, and ‘Home Where We Belong’, Weltraum, Munich, Germany (both 2011).

Amy Sherlock is deputy editor of frieze and is based in London.

Issue 152

First published in Issue 152

Jan - Feb 2013

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