American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2008

Andrea J. Smith

An exhibition of recent paintings by Andrea J. Smith, at Forum Gallery in New York City, was a highlight of the increasingly lively summer art scene. Smith spent time at the Florence Academy, a bastion of the new realist movement, where she became, in her words, “obsessed with good draftsmanship.” When she founded the Harlem Studio in New York City in 2002, she based her teaching program on Charles Bargue’s 1850s Cours de Dessin, which influenced generations of academically inclined art students and even more avant-garde practitioners, such as Vincent van Gogh. Smith’s portraits and still lifes demonstrate a solid grounding in old master techniques. But, while some contemporary traditionalists advocate isolation from the modernist legacy, she balances classical forms with elements of abstraction and emphatically vigorous painthandling.

This complex heritage comes together beautifully in Stones, a nearly square (40-by-42-inch) portrait of a woman who cradles a smooth, palm-sized stone in her hands. She sits on a bench, with a cluster of other stones beside her. The calmly enigmatic expression with which she confronts the viewer gives her a timeless quality, reinforced by her simple dark tunic and head scarf, suitable studio attire for either a Renaissance apprentice or a twenty-first-century artist. What gives the painting its modernist zing, however, is the way Smith slathers on her medium, using a palette knife to create texture. She acknowledges Cézanne not only in her application of paint, but also in her color—subtle, with a dusty Provencal softness. The painterliness of the rough wall behind the sitter, with its vague adumbrations of pattern, functions very much like a Cézanne backdrop. Smith moves into a mid-twentieth-century mode for another nearly square (42-by-44-inch) figurative painting, Thistle (2007). In this work, abstract compositional elements claim an equal share of the viewer’s attention, jockeying for position against the slight, elegant form of the girl, dressed in black and holding the thistle, who stands in profile against a peach rectangle. The canvas is neatly divided into geometric shapes, with a brownish blank predella at the bottom. The texture of the paint, however, keeps the geometry from completely flattening out.

Smith’s affection for weathered surfaces and rusted metal is evident in her still lifes. In Groupings (2008), three eggplants and a plump tomato in a cut-off tin can sit on the floor, pressed into the corner of both the room and the canvas. The mottling of the red and purple vegetables is carried over into the various tinges of the yellowing floor and dirty white wall, to give everyday surfaces the variegated richness of marble. Groupings retains the illusion of a three-dimensional interior. In Giant Tomato (2008), the almost trompe l’oeil object incongruously floats in mid-air against a peeling wall, suggesting the playful realism of an ancient Roman fresco. A more straightforward still life, Mandarins (2007) lays out two bulbous, golden fruits with matte green leaves, along with a few fragments, on a grey stone shelf against a weathered white wall. It’s a simple, graceful composition, both naturalistic and decorative in a way that calls to mind the loving depictions of fruit in ancient interiors.

Smith brings a good deal of variety to her still lifes. Garlic on Green (2007) has a different visual dynamic, with an overhead shot of three papery heads in a green bowl, layered over a frayed red napkin and a cream dish. The concentric circles, despite the convincing realism of the objects pictured, flatten out into an exuberant abstract pattern. Not all the works in the exhibition have this sort of compositional and conceptual strength, but Smith is a consistently skillful painter who has an impressive international exhibition record. Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10151. Telephone (212) 355-4545. On the web at www.forumgallery.com – See more at: www.nccsc.net