His background in fine art, interior design and past work on dazzle patterns leads to a running theme of block colours and white space, with his current work focused on colour swatches. The range of subjects chosen for Smith’s work could not be further apart, from re-constructing iconic art including the Mona Lisa, Whistle Jacket by Stubbs and Son Of Man by Magritte, to highly provocative pornographic stills, leading to his latest series Paramour (an illicit lover) that explores the feminine form.
After two successful shows at Lawrence Alkin Gallery, Smith’s work has propelled to new heights. Recently, he’s exhibited his work across the pond at Miami Basel, which led to a sell out show.
Why go down the X-rated route? Originally it was all classical paintings and shit like that so what drove you to it?
It had to start somewhere. I had a vision of where I wanted to go but I had to set a framework, a structure, so that people understood what I was doing. I worked with images that everybody recognises, hence working with masterpieces for the first show. That was my intention. There’s only a finite resource that you can work with of other people’s images and also I wasn’t getting to flex my creative muscles, just regurgitating a pastiche of other people’s work. I was interested in the amount of information required for somebody to understand what it is. I’d done this reduction of Mona Lisa from the scale that it is portrayed in the Louvre all the way down to one pixel. Those are immediately recognisable images that have been in the human lexicon for years. So then, with the little perversion in me, I wanted to try that with pornography. So I did a woman sucking cock, a blow job, and then stripped that back down to where you’re only going to get it from a periphery glance. But the work… I mean, that sold, but it’s a little bit school boy. I wanted something that was a little more credible and was more beautiful and would hit a larger audience. So, I worked with nudes. That previous work, if you’re familiar with what I’m doing, had word colour association. So the blow job piece which was called the Lewinski, you know, the most famous blow job in the world, that had 192 words for blow job on it. I came up with about 80 of them and then was kind of struggling a little bit. I went on to the internet to source some and got there in the end. It’s a bit of an education.
So that was fun but I wanted to do the next show, which was Paramour. That’s what I called it, Paramour, the definition of an illicit lover, which is a word that’s seldom used these days. I wanted to connect these nudes with something a little bit more serious and my grandfather had always been an avid reader of Shakespeare and had all these books that I wasn’t interested in it at school. It gets forced down your neck and… it’s a little bit like whisky or something. You don’t like it when you’re young and you know one day that you’re going to enjoy a whisky or a cigar or something… So I kind of threw myself back in to all this classical literature as the first reference point. I didn’t want to do 50 Shades of Grey or some shit like that because it’s not credible. So I started to research romantic literature and it went beyond the pillar stones for Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence and then did a bit more research and found out that there was virtually no literature about lesbians. Nobody wrote about it and if they did it was heavily censored and there was this phrase used during Victorian times for lesbians and it was called ‘tipping the velvet’ because people didn’t want to use that word. It was… is it an acronym? It’s something like that. No that’s like ACAB or something. Anyway, it’s a metaphor. So, there was this Sarah Waters, who wrote this book called Tipping the Velvet set in Victorian England. I wanted to use text that was poetic and applied that to a picture of two women dressing each other. It’s a beautiful scene. I think everything I’ve done, it’s not gratuitous. It would be too easy to get school boy, too… 8 0 0 8 1 3 5 …if you get what I’m talking about.
What about your early work?
I always wanted to be an artist, and the stuff that I loved was born through experience with ships doing interior design on them. I became aware of this dazzle pattern that was applied to ships in the First World War. It’s the most futuristic, radical, graphic, striking melody of black and white.
It is, it’s like zebras. That’s why they have the pattern in nature, that’s where it came about. The predator can’t ascertain the number or the distance of their prey, so they find it harder to strike. The enemy knew that the ship was there, they could clearly see it, but they weren’t able to set the gauges on their weapons accurately to hit it. So, I was fascinated by that and the logic behind it because it was such a confident bold move.
This pattern … it looks like 80s rave pattern and it was happening at the start of the Twentieth Century, applied on to ships. It was all photographed in black and white, but it was actually in colour a lot of it. Whatever paint they had to hand, but if it’s photographed in black and white, it just looks black and white. So I loved that and started … I’m not that good a graffiti artist or spray painter. I’ve worked with graffiti artists and I know my limits but felt I could impact with this. So I did it outdoors on a yacht, did it on a tank, did it on some garage doors, did it on a wall here and there, mixed up with other artists and then started to make prints out of that. I think with these bold solid blocks of colour, that’s what I appreciate.
So that sort of lead to the whole swatches?
Well, the swatches came about because working in interior design, you have to reference colours with paint swatches. They are little gems and I was pained to throw them away. I would have a jar on my desk full of them, a melody of beautiful, colourful little gems and then we’d be bored in meetings and assemble them to look like little patterns, like space invader and things. Then the idea kind of took off. I thought, maybe you could make an image out of this. This was back in 2009. So, I did Marilyn by Warhol. I did Whistle Jacket by Stubbs, which is the famous horse. I did Van Gogh’s famous blue self portrait and that sold in a day. Three pieces from someone that wasn’t an artist. I didn’t know how to price my work, sold them for I think £400 each. But I was just fucking chuffed that someone was interested in my work.
I then got contacted by RYCA who is an artist and publisher, and then did two prints with him in 2011 of Marilyn. They sold very well. I did the word colour association with them and they sold out. Then I went back in to hibernation and carried on doing my interior design with this itch that I wanted to pick up my career as an artist.
You’ve worked your way into the paths of a lot of artists that were already well established, did that give you inspiration?
Absolutely. I’ve collected art for about ten years now. I only buy what I like and I have got a fair idea of who is out there and what they’re doing. Then, to meet these people and have them approach me and buy my work is the biggest compliment. Ben Eine, he got in contact and said, I want to buy some of your work and then Dave White as well.
How does that feel as an artist to sell art to an artist?
It feels incredible. I mean art is subjective, whether you like something or you don’t. The only thing you can quantify is the volume that it actually sells for and then you can draw some sort of graph and the timeline from when an artist started and the value of the work going up. But it is fundamentally about the appreciation of the art. For somebody to commit to actually purchasing your art, it’s an exchange of energy. They’ve been going to work for a month and they’ve got paid this certain amount of money. That effectively is the value of what you’ve done. It’s been fucking incredible. The main one is Stanley Donwood, the fifth member of Radiohead, I love his work, kind of monochromatic… I’ve got that piece up there and then that gold one over there and there’s a few others knocking about in the house. But yes, to have him actually know who you are, to message you. It’s a good feeling. It’s not like all of a sudden there’s these notches. It’s kind of an organic process and it’s just the way you feel in the world. Yes, I feel humbled by it.
Tell us a little bit about the process, and the names for your swatches as well, that’s obviously a massive thought process in its own right.
There is absolutely a relationship. So, the word colour association, it will start with the obvious ones. I have an image and I know that I’ve got 1200 colours and I have to attach a word to each one that is associated with that colour. I start with the obvious things, like the most basic things. Black is an interesting one actually. In different cultures black means different things. I often start with the visual things like Cadillac black, tuxedo black, black tie, black blah, blah, blah, and then you exhaust all of those and you find that you’ve got another 70%. So I’ll do a little bit of research, look at minerals or things that I don’t know about. I learn while I’m doing this. I learn about star constellations and stuff.
Does that level of association boil down to the nature of the art in itself, the subject matter of what it’s about?
Absolutely. So, to take the Mona Lisa as an example, at the top everything was very green and verdant and then as you go down it goes in to darker tones. The words soak from our associations with natural things all the way down. You almost get another portrait within it from good to dark things, like evil associations. But these words, if viewed in isolation, are in context with the colours. If you were able to zoom out and see every word and get a flavour of a play running through, there would be a jolly beginning and a dark ending. The process is filled with moments of unexpected inspiration, like, I’ll go for a piss or something and I’ll just be stood there and then something will pop in to my head or something will say something to me. It’s at the end. It’s the emotional stuff, the stuff that’s less direct and obvious that ends up filling in the gaps. That’s when it becomes exciting. I can’t even turn off my brain after I do one of these pieces. I’ll be walking around and I’ll see a word rather than a colour.
Has any work led you on to read a certain thing? You’ve had subject matter in mind and that’s led you to a book?
Absolutely. The most beautiful synergy in artwork that I’ve created was Son of Man by Rene Magritte, which is the faceless business man with the apple over his face. A famous image, and the faceless business man in literature is Brett Easton-Ellis’s American Psycho. So the pairing of those two was so fucking obvious and that was the first piece I did that wasn’t this psycolourgy series. It wasn’t associated colour to words. It was my favourite passage from that book. There is an idea of Patrick Bateman and then it just runs through his narcissistic analysis of himself and his facelessness. So that connected beautifully with that image. And then Whistle Jacket, which is George Stubbs’ famous image of the horse prancing that is in the National Gallery, that was a lot of fun because that was research into horse names, which of course, run in to tens, hundreds of thousands and you find there’s a horse named Mr Blobby. You’ve got this contradiction you know, it’s funny to fucking read. And it’s educational as well.
You’ve used some very iconic pictures, have you had any negative feedback from people for recreating such iconic images?
Those images are instantaneous. I’ve definitely had fear. The majority of images I’ve worked with are people that are dead. David Hockney is obviously still alive and one of the most successful pieces that I’ve done is an appropriation of The Bigger Splash, the Swimming Pool, which was a fictional swimming pool some place in California.
Would it be right to say that piece has done particularly well?
That’s been my biggest success. The original sold for £3600. I did a larger one which sold for $15000 at Art Basel, Miami and the print was £250 at source. Now that print sells on the secondary market for £750, which I find astonishing. I only ever keep one print of what I’ve done, the first in the edition, but the rest… a print to me is a commodity and it gets my work out. I don’t overcharge for my prints and there’s lots of people that charge more. I want it to be accessible and an entry to what I do.
What’s your opinion on the art resale scene?
I have got no issue. It’s flippers basically. It’s the same thing with trainers. You’re not in to it because you like it; you’re in to it because you want to make some money out of it, which is fair enough. I queued up for a Banksy print in 2012. It cost me £450 and now they’re selling for £15,000 plus. There were lots of people that went in there, and there’s no shame in that. It benefits the artist. It only detracts from the people that are genuinely interested in the artwork that want to have it on their wall because they like it and they’ve missed the opportunity because there’s been people that are more ruthless. But that’s the nature of economics. Anybody would do that. If you could buy a loaf of bread for 20p and sell it for a £1, there’s no shame in that. It’s only because it’s a bit of fucking art and it’s not something that you eat, it’s something that we attach some sort of emotional value to, that you say that it’s bad.
Going back to the David Hockney piece that was in your Miami show. How was it going across the pond and what was your reception there?
Art Basel is the Mecca, it’s the nucleus of the art world on a global scale. People fly in from all over the world. It’s got a reputation and I don’t know much about it. I’d kind of heard about it. I’m not really… I work in isolation basically, but the gallery, they were going over there and invited me to produce a piece. We knew this piece had been successful, so I scaled it up massively. It was 1.6m2. I didn’t have a surface large enough to do it so ended up pinning it to a wall and making it, getting it framed, putting a lot of time in to it and it was a risk. The whole thing was like a fucking risk, but it was cool just to be over there. Then the guys that I was working with, there was interest over the first few days. It got a lot of interest and it sold quite quickly. I think on the third day out of five or six days. It could have probably sold again, but I’m really militant on what I say I’m going to produce. If I say I’m going to do an edition, that’s it.
Knowing that can sell, does that make it easier to produce for the next piece of art, because you know it’s going to be received well?
That’s interesting. I would rather keep people excited. My next show is the thing that I’m most excited about. I was already thinking about it halfway through the last one and don’t know if it’s a good idea. I’m going to drip feed it in to the world but it goes way beyond creating an image. It goes way beyond… it’s the same thing as what I’m doing but I’m looking to connect people with really significant stuff that’s happened in this world before. A lot of the stuff that I’m doing, there’s not randomness to it.
Have you always got a plan? I imagine it’s all going to fall in to place as you want it to.
It’s fucking good fun. I don’t see life as a chore in the slightest. I can see the steps to take and I know… when I was at Coventry University and I did a Masters, the first three years were working with everybody. Then everybody fucked off because nobody could deal with Coventry anymore and then I did this extra year and literally all my friends left. I was left there by myself in this shitty town in the arsehole of England and that was one of the purest moments I have ever had with my work. I found design and then it all led through that. We’ve kind of got to that stage now where I can enjoy life and focus on a grand idea. 35 years old, quite comfortable and happy. But now it has become about what I want. To do something that is going to satisfy me.