The somewhat incongruous title of this exhibition, “Geometry of Bliss,” twice belies the paintings that it encompasses. Anj Smith’s mostly small (up to 14 inches on a side) oil-on-linen works burrow into a murky realm in which the angularity of geometry and the glow of bliss seem in short supply. Glowering landscapes, gossamer fabrics, talismanic symbols, and hairy animals and ladies—by turns sullen and unruffled—abound. Compared to earlier works from 2005-06, Smith’s latest paintings (all 2010) are almost exclusively brooding in their palette. Yet the tone here is not morbid. The effect is hard to pin down.
So, too, is Smith’s evocative application of paint. Her surfaces reveal a deft versatility in dealing with oil. At times she lets it congeal and clump to form thick, veined evocations of earth and loam; at others, the canvas appears translucent, its imagery sealed and crisp under a licked finish. In several instances (Nachtraglichkeit, Reconstruction, Post-Pastoral Secrets) the paint even creeps over the frame, evoking the very physical, sedimented substance—usually mud and roots—that the scene depicts. The image becomes an object of sorts, a dual representation of its subject. This effect does not come off as gimmicky; it is consistently reconciled with the rather straightforward format of the canvas and creation of pictorial space. Smith’s images remain stubbornly, but subtly, rooted in a world of figure-ground relationships, whether they picture tattered, sheer fabrics bearing living creatures and stitched signs (Evolution in Poetic Language, After the Escape, Trampwoman’s Trace); monkeys huddled in a grim terrain vague, strewn with skulls and string (Things Half-Remembered); or hirsute, human(oid) subjects seemingly related to the animals that cling to them (The Combatant, R).
Her consistent delineation of horizon lines, even in the presence of improbable imagery, underscores Smith’s fundamental kinship with Surrealist painting. Evoking a range of iconographic and stylistic precedents—from Frida Kahlo and Toyen to Yves Tanguy, Jean Dubuffet and Wols—she manages to repurpose facets of them to new ends. In scale and subject, texture and temperament, Smith’s most obvious forebear is Leonora Carrington. The latter’s interest in the emotive and lyrical power of the animal world, penchant for the frankly awkward eccentricities of Northern Renaissance painting and crisply rendered metamorphoses—in which animal, vegetable and mineral unite in somewhat fungible anatomies—all seem to inform Smith’s work. Even more than Carrington, Smith seems attuned to the different valences of line, whether descriptive (veins on a woman’s hairy leg) or autonomous and incongruous (the filament of line that issues from a pomegranate in Social Science, forming two schematic human figures seemingly divorced from the still life).
Lost Patteran, the most affecting painting in the exhibition, is the least wrought. Its title refers to the coded signs left on roadsides by one Roma (Gypsy) to another in the form of assembled leaves or sticks or cloth. Exemplifying Smith’s affinity for symbols and talismans, this picture nevertheless dispenses with an elaborate configuration of signs or objects; the spare and frayed fabric on this craggy, pitched hill evokes a lyrical world unto itself. The meticulous realism of wisps of grass contrasts with the thick, encrusted evocation of exposed earth. Smith has siphoned off some of the elaborate symbolism that at times clutters the other images, and to great effect. Her work is best when it assumes the simple and threadbare dimensions of that wayward patteran.
Photo: Anj Smith: Lost Patteran, 2010, oil on linen, 71⁄8 by 93⁄4 inches; at Hauser & Wirth.