Jack Smith: New and Selected Work at Santa Barbara’s Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery
A Rich Pageantry of Portraits
Jack Smith primarily is a portraitist, and he is based in Taos, New Mexico, but his commissions and peripatetic habits have taken him all over the world. His pictures offer up the rich and strange pageant that passes through the lens of his shrewd intelligence and painterly hand. This show brings together Smith’s at once familiar and surprising small paintings in black oil on copper plate with some larger works on canvas that show what he can do with the composition of an entire scene.
The small pictures on copper include a powerful, somewhat brooding “Auto Portrait” of the artist wearing a black-and-white scarf decorated with a print of skulls. This detail adds an art historical dimension to the treatment, which is worked heavily in the manner of Dutch masters De Kooning and Rembrandt. The idea that the traditional memento mori has become an accessory, something the artist can wear and remove as casually as a scarf, puts the memento tradition in a startlingly contemporary and ironic new perspective.
The larger works are in oil on linen, and every one of them is a triumph. Smith’s portrait of the great ceramicist Ken Price standing next to a rectangular gallery display pillar topped by five fresh eggs says something profound about our species’ penchant for decorative containers at the same time that it drops a sly reference to Price’s classic deconstructed cups, which are probably not often used for holding breakfast drinks. The two biggest pictures in the show are also the most exotic. The double portrait “Green Window” illustrates the Taos that Smith and his friends inhabit, a place that is somehow at once continuous with the ancient Mexican traditions of indigenous artists and the Bohemian milieu of Venice Beach or the East Village. Another large canvas depicts a shooting gallery in Morocco, the site of one of Smith’s expeditions. Unable to persuade the proprietor to allow him to photograph the array of baby dolls and other small objects that make up the tableau, Smith reluctantly agreed to pay for several turns shooting at the display in order to observe the arrangement for long enough to paint it-an apt metaphor for the painter’s determination to capture the images he represents.