MELINDA R. SMITH paints like she means it, with a fearless palette and eccentric rendering that subverts expectation. Her unconventional color sense and raw, folkloric style are just what a formal art education would have beaten out of her -- so it’s our good luck she taught herself to paint. Before that, she was a writer, a poet mostly, who had turned her attention to an examination of the fraught creative process itself. This approach she now takes at her easel, producing works that are sort of about the world, in a dark fairy-tale sort of way, but are even more about the trauma of their own creation.
Forever deconstructing on the page, Smith the poet took her ideas apart to see what made them tick, building, razing, relentlessly questioning her own motivations. On the canvas, she often starts with words. The she paints them out, writes them again, buries them in pigment, scrapes, slathers, marks terrain, divides space, leaves clues, makes choices, draws attention to the seams, complicates things, starts over. Everything is available as content, as Smith enacts a narrative refractivity that is animated by emotional elements of abstraction, and deftly punctuated by imagery.
She has rules about the boundaries between abstraction and figuration, adhering to intuitive and art historical limitations. “Abstraction is pure existential nihilism,” she says. “It doesn’t come naturally. There’s nothing to rely on in the picture, and it is therefore a mental exercise about itself and the picture-making process.” It is akin problem-solving. Whereas for Smith, the introduction of imagery launches an inevitable search for definite meaning -- an elusive resolution that has never interested her. Even the writings, which direct the viewer’s thoughts, remain deliberately, imaginatively, ambiguous. In this way, the audience is invited to participate in establishing meaning, and all interpretations are valid.
Often her most impactful works combine elements of both abstract and figurative image-making -- instances where her representational elements waver on the abstract continuum, while also anchoring legible pictorial space. Her central images act as armatures for an array of quasi-abstract features, especially across the house and garden motif of recent landscapes, which are as psychologically legible as portraits. With influences ranging from Basquiat to Klee, the Flemish Renaissance, as well as Kandinsky, Malevich and others who sought refuge in spirited abstraction, Smith’s expressive color-blocking and schematic architecture reads as both manse and metaphor. A house in a field, a walled garden with trees, these are at the same time pure passages, fields not of grass but of brushstrokes, forming Rothko-inflected swaths of green, blue, yellow, and a bright and eerie pink-orange that suffuses everything.
There’s the writing, too. It’s her voice from before, poetic palimpsests enumerating flashes of memory, half-hearted dreams, full-throttle fears, and torn diary pages. Text for Smith now operates in contrast to the images, giving emotional context but glancing off of the process itself, diversions within the story of storytelling -- or, so to speak, within the painting of paintings.
Smith’s paintings are currently on view at Monopole Wine in Pasadena through January 27.