Art: Wednesday, March 13, 2003
Sub-Atomic Dog

Quantum physics and music have much to do withMark Stephen Smith’s paintings.


At the William Campbell Contemporary Art exhibition gallery, a statement by artist Mark Stephen Smith hangs inconspicuously amid his paintings. “If the paintings seem both soothing and dynamic,” Smith says, “then I have managed to address the enigmatic and dichotomous extremes described in quantum physics and portrayed by my musical muses.” Translation: I’m a failure.

The fight Smith’s giving up here is one that’s endemic to all visual artists who try to incorporate the phenomena of other disciplines and arts into visual cues — something is always inextricably lost. There’s only one way to harness, say, the music of Joyce’s Ulysses in visual art and that’s to paste pages of the book on canvases and invite viewers to read; then, it’s essentially no longer visual art, of course, but literature, and the visual artist is back at square one: How to make Ulysses’ music visual. The sad thing is, it’s impossible, and if the artist comes close, then he’s gone on to something else entirely, something “original” (annoying references notwithstanding).

The saving grace is that viewers don’t really care, nor do they know any better. They’re happy with good-looking images, no matter the inspirations or names: An artist’s failure could be a collector’s treasure. And Smith, through his statement, seems smart enough to understand that appropriating the principles of quantum physics or music is a quixotic task. Regardless, he seems just as happy churning out striking imagery as we are looking at it.

Taken as a whole, Quantum States makes for a delirious trip through a Day-Glo funhouse presided over by a neat freak. The totalizing environment is frenetic, mischievous, funky, and completely synthetic. Most of the paintings sing the same wonderful coloratura notes, one or two go down swinging, and some bristle with good intentions yet crumble beneath the weight of expectations, the seeds of their destruction sown in that damn artist’s statement.

You know, the term “quantum physics” gets tossed around a lot (especially in the newsroom), yet not many people really know what the term means. Briefly: Quantum physics is the study of the interactions among tiny things, even sub-atomic particles. The smaller you go, the less likely it is that physics, as we understand it, applies — hence, quantum physics. Class dismissed.

What all this small stuff has to do with art, specifically Smith’s hefty, formidably sized paintings, is unclear. The only apparent connection is between molecular activity and the way Smith’s treated pigments interact with the birch wood on which his luminous paintings unfold. The result is a compendium of uncertain, mostly chipped colors that loop around one another in precisely configured, hollowed-out arcs, circles, and angular shapes, together speaking some wild new language like concentric circles on a corn field, and that achieve zero elevation from the surface of the wood. These paintings are as flat as Joe Millionaire’s brainwaves during an algebra test. It’s as if the looping lines of pigment had formed beneath the exterior of the wood. Photographs of road maps could be these paintings’ distant cousins.

Or it could simply be that quantum physics is as mysterious and fascinating to the layman as these paintings are mysterious and fascinating to, well, everybody who looks on them. “Portal: Dark Blue” is bold and totemic — half-circles, quarter-circles, three-quarter circles, all kinds of circles have been arranged in a circular pattern in the middle of the painting over a background of neatly measured squares within squares, culminating in the exact center of the piece in the form of a square no bigger than a hit of acid. “Green Window,” with its sharply careering U-shapes, squares, ovals, and circles, hits you in the eye with the force of any later-day Léger. A series of four, reasonably sized, vertical paintings, each sharing the title “Timeline,” features what appear to be digitized bits of iconography, not unlike something you’d see on an Egyptian sarcophagus or a neon billboard in downtown Tokyo; they’re tinctured with significance. And the handful of pieces whose titles are prefaced by the exhibit’s title manage to correlate the logic of precise shape-making with abstract-expressionism’s unspoken philosophy of free-spirited paint application. In these pieces, as in most of Smith’s works here, we are drawn primarily to the shade-shifting backgrounds, where deep reds bleed into golds, bleed into purples and greens. It’s only when we look closer do the shapes above these backgrounds arrest our wandering eyes.

These paintings are as strong compositionally as any more popular ab-ex works; every inch of every hunk of birch here is vitally important. These paintings have not happened to Smith, as “Full Fathom Five” “happened” to Pollock; Smith has actualized these works. They are not snapshots of a fourth dimension. Everything in these pieces has its deliberate, delicate place. Some shapes fly off their respective tableaux, expectedly, but most seem to enjoy congregating near the centers of pieces.

It would require a highly trained scientific eye to detect any trace of humanity in any of these paintings. The lines of the shapes are nearly mechanical in their perfection. So where’s the soul? Well, if your idea of “soul” translates merely into “messiness” or “humanness,” then you may be disappointed. It’s doubtful, but possible. The soul, as far as I’m concerned, is basically the body. Emotions register physically. Having emotional intelligence is the same as having intelligence. No robot could have dreamt up Mark Stephen Smith’s paintings — they’re steeled in emotional integrity. Only another sentient creature would know our weaknesses for humble hues of green, reminding us of nature, and of brittle tones of red, reminding us of our mortality. Only another thoughtful creature would know how with patient, caressing eyes we look upon the infinite perfection of the circle, reminding us of the divine.

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