Although, when exhibiting his work, Richard Smith has tended to evade the thematic, his latest work explores themes of dialogue and communication, not necessarily of a harmonious nature. The content of the works is, he states : "mainly heads, large portraits of living people and smaller ones of characters imagined".
Smith employs mixed media, creating a multi-layered, multi-textured work. He continuously works and re-works charcoal layers, each of which is alternately marked with charcoal and abraded with sandpaper, resulting in evocatively textured surfaces. The main component of the images is charcoal, and the introduction of colour is by means of oil on paper collage and other materials such as coloured pencil, acrylic paint, soft pastel, oil pastel and Indian ink.
The Portrait Series, a body of work which Smith says are of "young people who are my friends and whose faces appeal to me", are sensitive but quirky explorations of the human subject. Smith often uses the language of the subconscious and the subliminal when speaking about his work, suggesting a deeply personal and intuitive process of art-making.
Smith's exploration of the portrait genre is notably quite self-reflexive. He speaks of the historical portrait's immersion in status, power and contrivance. Exploring the relationship between artist and sitter, he asks his subject to "adopt deadpan". For him, the objects superimposed around or on them bring expression to the work. These objects are not to be interpreted as literal markers of the subject's personality or emotion, but emerge from Smith's memories or imagination.
Portraits captured through the medium of charcoal and collage speak of Smith's work as a social commentator and enter into a dialogue with broader social and political issues.
Richard Smith was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947. He has had a varied career as a cartoonist, social commentator, illustrator and fine artist. In the late 1960's he studied Graphic Design at the Johannesburg School of Art. In 1968 he began his career as a cartoonist for the Sunday Times. Smith subsequently contributed to publications such as Punch, the Financial Mail, the Harvard Business Review, Leadership Magazine, The London Underground Press and the Rand Daily Mail. He was also involved with the production of politically-orientated animation for BBC television. In addition, he has produced artwork for the corporate sector including the Merrill Lynch Group and Dimension Data. In 1980 and 1983 he won the Standard Bank Cartoonist of the Year Award.
Smith's fine art career began in 1971 with a solo show of drawings at the Arts Theatre Club, Leicester Square, London. Amongst his early influences Smith cites Gillian Ayers and George Rowlett. He began painting in the mid 1980's and exhibited at the Everard Read Gallery, primarily as a landscape painter. In 1990, while a Resident at the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, Smith began making oil on paper works. Some of these works were torn up and re-worked as collage elements. His fascination with charcoal's malleability also began at this time.
Smith has exhibited widely both in South Africa and abroad. In 1985 and 1988 he was represented on the Cape Town Triennial. His work has appeared on numerous exhibitions at Johannesburg's Everard Read Gallery, the most recent of which was South African Landscapes in 2001. He has participated in numerous group shows in Europe, for instance, at Luxtors Fine Art and the Black Boy Gallery, UK (1990); Galeri Viktoria, Gottenberg, Sweden (1999); Expo 2000, Hanover, Germany; The OMNA Centre for Contemporary Art in Chania, Crete (2002) and the Jill Yakas Gallery, Athens, Greece (2002). Smith has also received private commissions including a portrait of King Mswati III of Swaziland and portraits of seven Southern African heads of state, presented to them on the occasion of the launch of the Blue Train at Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls.
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