Michael Smither’s search for pleasure
It’s hard to overestimate the influence artist Michael Smither has had on the art world for the past 40 years.
It could be said his work has had an enormous influence on the emerging New Zealand artists of this century.
There is a colourful optimism to Smither’s work, and his latest sculptures – Pleasure Boats
–reflect the exuberance of Pacific culture and place.
Whereas New Zealand art is often notable for its melancholic colours, and beautifully grotesque landscapes and figures [see Colin McCahon and Rita Angus], Smither has always referenced his contemporaries, while being incredibly playful in his approach.
While McCahon is more anomic, Smither is more hopeful. You get the sense of a faithful future with Smither.
Smither, 78, has lived for nearly 20 years in the remote coastal settlement of Otama, on the Coromandel Peninsula north of Whitianga, with partner Gian McGregor.
But people still associate him with New Plymouth and Taranaki, where he lived for much of his career.
Smither, who was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004, has been recognised as one of New Zealand’s most eminent artists, for his surrealist paintings and Taranaki rock series, and for his groundbreaking colour series linking the harmonies of colour with the harmonies of music, which he has explored since his early career.
In the past two decades, one could argue, Smither’s work has reflected the Generation Y artists making their emergence on the art scene.
There is more colour, more pop and, for lack of a better word, more humour in Smither’s artistic legacy.
That is why Smither will no doubt be viewed as one of the more influential artists of the 21st century, and ever more reason to check out his latest exhibition at The Diversion Gallery in Picton, running until March 10.
It’s an incredible feat getting this kind of body of work to a Marlborough gallery.
‘‘It’s the essence of my Pacific art, really. Something I’ve been working on for the past four decades. The sculptures as shapes are an evolution of ‘Pacifica’ – they reference classic Pacific shapes and motifs, and colours.’’
Smither’s father lived in Samoa during World War II, and he says this connection also influenced his evolution of the ongoing colour harmonic series.
The sculptures have the naive charm of an apparently simple and appealing idea – like a child’s toy - but Smither says they are underpinned by an exhaustive process.
‘‘I began with watercolours, testing the colour sequences I had in mind, until I was finally satisfied with the combinations.
‘‘The size and shape of the works were critical. I wanted them to have an intuitive appeal, I wanted them to be pleasurable for the eye, and people to not know why. It has to be really an instinctive reaction of pleasure.
‘‘The shapes and colours I chose, I think, were critical to that.’’
Smither says the colours shift, not only up and down each column of the sculptures, but also diagonally. There is a natural harmony in the forms, which seem to resonate with the viewer on first encounter.
Smither says this search for harmony within his work began with learning music at a young age, after his parents bought a piano when he was 8-years-old.
‘‘My understanding of music was, from that point on, related to the arrangement of the piano keys, and recognition of pattern in music.’’
At high school, he was introduced to the pianola which employed ‘‘punctuated patterns on rolls’’ that gave a different ‘‘abstract visualisation of sound’’.
Smither’s work could be described as a search for harmony in the balance of shapes, textures, and colour; a search for archetypal forms, and the deeper meaning behind why we find things beautiful. It seems a deeply intuitive response for humans to find some musical pieces pleasing to the ear and mind. And Smither’s search for meaningful coordination with the visual arts is characterised very well in
He says the sculptures echo the shapes of the chubby boats in his Okahu Boat paintings, the vehicle for his exploration of colour and sound harmonics for the past two decades.
‘‘I had developed several watercolours that explored the coloured harmonic relationships, discovered in the Harmonic Chart,’’ Smither says. ‘‘After that, I made a series of paintings and prints based on graphic and exploration of the basic shapes of boats at Okahu Bay as seen from Hammerheads restaurant balcony at sunset.’’
There are 14 Pleasure Boats in the 2018 exhibition, flanked by screen prints and paintings from an earlier series.
Each of the 14 sculptures has a unique sequence, to a maximum of a quartet of boats and reflections stacked four-high.
The overall effect is a gallery filled with uplift, light, colour and pleasure that for many will remain simply joyous without any explanation as to why this assemblage of artwork feels so good.
"My understanding of music was, from that point on, related to the arrangement of the piano keys, and recognition of pattern in music." Michael Smither
Michael Smither’s latest sculpture, Pleasure Boats, reflects the exuberance of Pacific culture and place.