Tony Smith appeared to me as a well aged punk, his stories of Eric’s in Liverpool and adolescence stirs up feelings of jealousy. I sat there, shaking my head, as he told the room about his exploits as a youth and how they were fashioned around The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Magazine, Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes and other punk/post-punk of the late 70s and early 80s that were even too obscure for my pre-birth nostalgia.
Punk, it’s irony, its politics, and, indeed, its contradictions serve as the centre for Tony Smiths artistic orbit.
I could easily write for hours on Smith and his work as his talk was given in the passionate, seemingly nervous, speed of someone who’s mind works faster than his mouth can articulate. His hands performing the perpetual fiddling of a musician. However, it would be more useful for me to pinpoint points of interest that I find particularly inspiring, questionable or applicable to my practice.
As the title suggests, Smith spent most of his time talking of gangs, mainly from his punk/mod/rocker point of view, contextualising his work using film footage from the time and from fictional films like the warriors.
He smiled at the fireworks outside, saying that they served as a good soundtrack to his abstract semi-autobiographical paintings. The violence of the fireworks, juxtaposed to the periods of silence, reflected the competing colours, lines and angles the characterise Smiths work.
Smith says the his work borrows from punks taste for irony and dislike for high-brow art. This can be seen in Smiths work through his paintings on click together floor tiles and his work that is something shown, literally, on a skip.
Smith’s work seems to grapple with its status as high, or fine, art much like the first wave of art school punks were forced to confront their higher social class with their new political and punk ideals.
The high income of some of the early punks is not the only contradiction in the movement, another example is its notions of freedom. Punk spoke of anarchy and freedom of expression but, very quickly, a punk uniform emerged, which eventually drifted into a self parody that left many punks disillusioned, arguably causing post-punk bands like Joy Division to emerge.
Smiths work, true to its roots, also embodies a kind of contradiction of terms. His work has an absence of figures and, as soon as he sees a figure in his paintings, he consciously destroys it. This would clearly align his work with the abstract. However, he says that he puts a part of himself into his work and hopes an audience will pick up on these remnants of him. Thos raises an interesting question, by painting elements of autobiography into a work, do we effectively paint a figure?
By creating a self portrait of our minds do we make a self portrait? A figure of how we perceive ourselves?
Smiths work contains elements of postmodernism, a penchant for irony, referencing and play but still hangs on to the idea of a ‘self’. In this way, he inherits the latent contradictions embodied by punk.
Smith’s work with grid-painting interested me as I saw parallels between other practioners. He would, for example, do a painting and place a geometric grid over it before applying some form of chance, or score operation. Where, John Cage used the I Ching, Smith used [rime numbers, a passionate fascination of modern mathematicians due to their importance in codes. The prime numbers then revealed partial, and random, parts of the painting, casting chance as the author over Smiths semi-biographical intention. Prime numbers as score could serve as an interesting point for my research into hypertexts.
Smith seems to have made an effort to not exist on the network, save a twitter account and a few obscure references on other websites….