Anj Smith at Hauser & Wirth
Portraits by the British artist Anj Smith appear at first glance to be those of young women. But careful viewing reveals elements that throw their portrayal of femininity into question—a few strands of facial hair, an Adam’s apple. Smith says the ambiguity is intentional, and that she was inspired to investigate issues of gender in her work by a close friend who recently underwent gender reassignment surgery. Her paintings are at once radical explorations of identity and sexuality, fused with a painting practice that has its roots in a fifteenth-century aesthetic and technique, a striking contrast that invigorates her work.
All of the eleven paintings on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York are small, but painted in intricate detail. At times Smith’s brushstrokes are scarcely detectable as hairline traces across her canvases. In other instances her brushstrokes are not detectable at all, as she has seamlessly created porcelain complexions and diaphanous textiles using an oil technique only achieved by true painting masters. It takes the artist six to nine months to create each painting, but the complexity of each piece succeeds in creating scenes that are surreal and alluring, well worth her time-consuming efforts. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor
Anj Smith | The moon, like a flower, 2012, Oil on linen, 14 1/8 x 11 1/4 in
Among the many tediously-depicted details in each painting—common elements of which are insects, reptiles, monkeys, jewelry, flowers, cigarette butts—is Smith’s portrayal of each figure’s hair, richly highlighted, and which is intricately woven into braids and knots, adorned with feathers and fabric. That the tendrils seem to take on a life of their own is contrasted by the figures’ sullen or lifeless expressions, many shown in a three-quarter profile, another motif tying the artist’s work to a Flemish or Dutch painting tradition.
Further conjuring Northern Renaissance masters like Jan Van Eyck is Smith’s use of symbolism, like the skulls so often seen in devotional paintings as momento mori, or reminders of the viewer’s mortality. However, she has written that, “symbols no longer stand for fixed intentions and a skull can mean pretty much anything…I feel those old defunct symbols retain a kind of ‘half-life’ meaning, a vestige of their purpose. As their original content decays in the present, they still suggest something to us, even if that ‘something’ is less clear and is morphing into something else.” The artist’s reimagined context for these symbols can be seen in her placement of an Alexander McQueen knuckleduster ring in the painting Fruits of the Forest, which features skulls in its design. The traditional symbol of mortality thus becomes one associated with consumerism and luxury, blurring the line between its traditional use in painting and the popular currency its gained as a fashionable icon. In another painting, New Blooms at the Ossuary, a crevice below ground and the decaying side of ghostly sea vessel reveal caches of skulls, each precisely rendered in detail. The artist’s myriad use of the motif in this instance borders on the absurd, taking the singular use of something meant to convey religious reflection, and repeating it until it becomes virtually meaningless.
Although Smith’s paint handling is generally uniform and smooth, she departs from this method in her depiction of uneven terrain. By building up the oil on the canvas, parts of her paintings become almost sculptural, projecting off the surface of the work in high impasto to suggest a rocky texture. This technique is used in The Sentry, a picture of an androgynous reclining nude, whose gender is kept mysterious by a swatch of red fabric extending from the groin. Although the figure wears dark lip rouge and a flapper-style headband, closer observation reveals a barely-detectable layer of hair that covers the figure’s arms and legs, each strand rendered in painstaking detail. Despite the painting’s title, it is unclear what this figure guards, leaving one to contemplate its literal or allegorical meaning.
The dark and whimsical nature of these works creates an aesthetic that is distinct, while displaying the artist’s ongoing engagement with the history and tradition of painting. In their careful rendering and rich, saturated colors, Smith’s paintings in themselves become like the priceless objects that are depicted within them. It is telling that the paintings in this show were sold almost immediately. Each tiny scene is an endless expanse of visual imagery and symbolism, and one could spend several moments tracing the minute details in her landscapes and portraits. Within each work are also remnants of popular culture and contemporary fashion that reward a meticulous eye. For this reason, Smith’s paintings are best experienced in person, where their sumptuousness and complexity can be fully appreciated.
Anj Smith: The Flowering of Phantoms is on view at Hauser & Wirth in New York through February 23rd.
Anj Smith was born in Kent, England in 1978 and studied painting at the Slade School of Fine Art and Goldsmith College, both in London. Since 2003 she has had multiple international shows, in Europe, India, Thailand, and the US. Smith currently lives and works in London.
Nadiah Fellah is a graduate student of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.