The Wallace Line

19/04/2018 - 12/05/2018

James Smeaton

James Smeaton
Untitled 8 (The Wallace Line)

2016

acrylic on canvas

110.00 x 60.00 cm

$6,000.00

The Wallace Line

James Smeaton

Headland is the title James Smeaton has given to a large composition that features prominently in a recent series of otherwise untitled, though lusciously painted acrylic on canvas works. To describe these paintings as abstract would be to ignore the figurative, aquatic and terrestrial motifs that emerge from this haptic and gestural mode of painting. Headland is a notable case in point, for it features a centralised mass that is both geographical headland surrounded by turbulent waters, and what may easily be read as the artist’s own head in repose. Possibly the subject is rising from beneath the waves in a determined bid for air; perhaps he is waking from slumber, or is a visage cut into the escarpment of a sea-facing cliff.

In Smeaton’s works this double entendre is indicative of a practice shot through with that particular experience of intense identification with the world. It was the French novelist and mystic Romain Rolland (1866-1944) who famously aggregated such experiences within the descriptor of the ‘oceanic feeling’. It signalled a mystical oneness with the universe, which psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) later perceived as an important rite-of-passage on the road to individuation. For Jung, anything less than the experience of complete connection, would only inhibit a more expanded sense of selfhood.

For Smeaton, the incessant tidal pull between self-expression on the one hand and a yearning for personal transcendence on the other finds tentative resolve in the process of painting. As a medium that demands both preparedness and virtuosic performance, painting has its own shamanic demands. More than mark making alone, painting in certain instances acts as a ritual process. The artist must be open to what emerges in the dance of paint on canvas. This is as much about the mental and physical state of the painter as it is, the completed image.

The terrain that is a perennial source of inspiration for Smeaton is the myriad islands of Indonesia. As a peerless environment in which to surf, an activity that has long been of importance for the artist, and as a territory where shamanic practice is very much alive today, the outer reaches of the Indonesian archipelago is key to Smeaton’s work. 

In a way that is personally significant to him, the islands are a liminal terrain. Wedged between Australia to the south, Melanesia to east and Asia more properly to the north, it is a region that naturalists sometimes refer to as Wallacea. The name honours Charles Darwin’s lesser known co-author of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913). Wallace’s intimation that species change through incremental shifts appealed to Smeaton’s aesthetic sensibilities and in it he recognised a parallel with his own transformations as an artist, precisely in a territory that deeply affected his naturalist predecessor.

Holding a deep fascination for both Eastern and Western ontologies, Smeaton rides a crest not only between abstraction and figuration, but also between conveying personal moments of experience and something that the personal seems unable to fully contain. In Smeaton’s art that spillage appears as the motif of water, and more specifically the churning ocean. If elements can be attributed to people, then Smeaton is clearly a creature of the sea. His works are elegiac evocations of shimmering hues, unassailable forces and impenetrable depths. They radiate with the alluring siren-song that seafarers the world over perceive in the beckoning waves. The pastel colours and sanded layers of paint bring to mind the boats and canoes of local fisher folk. The possibility that the paintings have been somehow exposed to the elements are in fact a technical sleight of hand, but it is a skill that invites us as viewers to explore the layered processes that are deployed in each of these paintings.


DR DAMIAN SMITH, 2018
Damian Smith is a freelance curator, arts writer and academic working in Australia, Asia and Latin America. He is the Director of Words For Art and a member of the International Association of Art Critics.


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