The Red Sea / Birds of Devilbend

29/04/2009 - 27/05/2009

James Smeaton

James Smeaton
Epoch I


acrylic on linen

120.00 x 90.00 cm


The Red Sea / Birds of Devilbend

James Smeaton
The Red Sea

As great as an ocean, and as rude, within.
― Charles Cotton, The Tempest, 1869

The drama of painting is enacted … in flatness against depth, skin wrapping the body, bones and pearls, rich and strange, at the thresholds of abstraction and narrative, but neither one or the other.

The title of Full Fathom Five unites Shakespeare and Jackson Pollock, in a tempestuous maritime key. In The Song of the Sea Solomon’s columns are cast in both concrete and poetic form. Pier and Ocean invokes Mondrian, lurking in the background, extending beyond the frame, but rendered in an antiquated archival register. Blurry, black borders reminiscent of foxed photographs suggest the fragility of mood and memory.

The Red Sea paintings explore the forces that bind people to their particular environments, and to each other. A basic lexicon of vertical and horizontal, of figure and horizon, sets the ‘I’ against the expanse, whilst the drama of darkness and light conjures a philosophical tone and spiritual dimension. Might there be archaeological motives in these big black depths? In these objects marked by time, the human hand and the elements? Or ancestral links in the narcissistic surface reflections of these strangely psychological portraits?

Thick skins of red-lead recall past experience of sealing porous wooden surfaces, and the tenebrous textures of Titian and Tintoretto. They register a love for the matter-of-fact materiality of paint itself, poured and pushed in libidinous flows, then self-consciously sanded and sealed for posterity. An organic yet plastic skin renders surface and depth, illusion and materiality, in ambiguous bodily registers. The painting titled Tempest – inspired by a Charles Cotton poem – adopts the most basic of architectural structures – the crucifix – to reconcile the body and nature, life and mortality, failure and redemption.

And then there are The Birds of Devil Bend, which endow the artist’s work with new flight and light… an intimate register of photographic blur returns natural history to its true place, so that birds hover like ghosts, majestically, over the landscape.

By Max Delany, 2009

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