Michael Smither’s search for plea­sure

Marlborough Express - - CULTURE - DAVID JAMES

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

Plea­sure Boats.

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

PHOTO: DAVID JAMES/STUFF

Michael Smither’s lat­est sculp­ture, Plea­sure Boats, re­flects the ex­u­ber­ance of Pa­cific cul­ture and place.

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