By Sandi Wells
An established artist since 1974, John Smith is one of Kwazulu Natal’s best known artists. There are few KZN and national collections that do not include a John Smith painting. His work has been bought by collectors in South Africa and internationally.
The success of his work derives from his vigour and intensity of his vision particularly for the South African landscape and its people. His work is wonderfully fluid and displays a refreshing use of mediums; be it oils, pastels or watercolour. John Smith is acknowledged for his tireless campaigning for the arts and artists and for the inspiration he has given to hundreds of amateur and professional artists alike. www.artistjohnsmith.co.za
Late Afternoon - Lamberts Bay | John Smith
It’s been many years since I last spoke to John Smith. He was the first artist, after my corporate stint and return to the art world, who I felt inclined to chat to. If there is a “Father of KwaZulu Natal’s Art”, John Smith has my vote. Our conversation gets straight into swing and as anticipated, John has strong opinions.
Sandi Wells: Are you in contact with James*? His work really excited me when he became professional six years ago but today, it disappoints me. One piece looks pretty much like the other, maybe that's too critical? I was just looking for that "WOW" factor that I experienced then. Having a recognised style which is unique is great for marketing but I believe there is some danger to that.
John Smith: I know what you mean. Yes I know his work. Unfortunately, you often see work by artists that is amusing and colourful but has become a mass produced item like jelly beans. You now see so much of his work it is absolutely everywhere and anywhere, that to me makes it no longer desirable or interesting. It has become like wall paper or like furniture shop art. The Golden Goose has been murdered sadly.
‘James’ has great skill, passion and a sense of humour but I feel he has been badly managed and I’m afraid it’s almost too late to fix. Popular art has a lifespan of no more than four or five years and then dead forever. There have been many like that. It is sad.
My thinking is that all artists need to reinvent the wheel every five or so years. I learned long ago that working to a formula dilutes the value of your work and makes your work common-place. I paint only stuff that interests me, and never because I think it will sell.
I’m arrogant enough to believe that an audience will come looking for me and my work, and that therefore I do not have to go looking for it, or try and please the masses who generally do not even know what they want and have to hire someone (a decorator) to make choices for them. That has worked for me during 4 decades of painting professionally so I’m unlikely to change my beliefs now.
SW: I felt the "WOW" factor when I first saw your "Gleaners", "Preparing for the Celebration" and “Sidewalk Cafe". Your audience know it's a ‘John Smith’ but you are giving us something a little different.
JS: I’m pleased you liked my work. They are cameos of things I have witnessed or observed and found them funny or interesting. There is far too little humour in art. There, I like James the artist, but he is squandering it I’m afraid. His ‘everyday life’ scenes were also amusing in their truth and innocence at one time, but now a bit like a stuck record. Truth makes one smile. Adriaan Boshoff’s work was a great example of that.
SW: That’s true, John - his “Court of Law” Series comes to mind. Adriaan Boshoff Jnr.’s work depicts some humour as well. Tell me a little about my favourite John Smith pieces?
JS: “Celebration” was one of two paintings. They were of a celebration for our domestic helper Lillian’s daughter at UMzimkhulu. Cooking up a storm! ‘Gleaners’ was at Oribi Gorge. I was kicking about a bit bored on a Sunday afternoon and came across these people gleaning the bits of left-over cane that had been left after the cutters had gone. ‘Sidewalk café’ was one of a series of street paintings done while we were in Europe. There were paintings of Zurich, Munich, Salzburg and Vienna. This one was in Zurich.
SW: I love the balance, the subtle colours and small strokes which simulate reflected light. Who do you feel are the current exciting artists?
JS: Really clever KZN artists who I like are Scott Bredin, Carl Roberts and Robert Domijan. Another artist who I believe may be going places is Nicole Pletts. She is a new kid on the block but has this love for making art. Great passion and is learning really fast.
SW: Carl Robert’s newsletters are of great interest. In the last one the topic was about William Bouguereau and Vladimir Tretchikoff coming into favour. For me, the former has enormous skill but far too gloomy and well; Tretchikoff is just not my taste and never will be.
JS: The interesting thing is that Tretchi is the closest we have to the Art Deco artists. He therefore represents an era that was very important to us in that we have some of the best Art Deco architecture in the world. This despite the fact that chronologically he came 20 or so years after the main blossoming of the Art Deco movement
SW: Doesn’t this beg your theory on popular art lasting 5 years? I remember that period! I must have been a teenager. Images are conjured up of prints of awful blue women or teary eyed cute kids, dreadful mustard furniture and crochet doilies. No, seriously I am with the critics.
JS: Ah, but there you are wrong. It is the critics and collectors who are now scrambling for the work. Tretchi is now becoming an academic hero. The masses have long forgotten him (5 years?) and are now into new popular artists. You cannot even find a Tretchi print any longer and the originals and prints are collector’s items and worth a bundle. Now the abstractists and Avant-guard of yesterday are passé and have been relegated to some or other land-fill.
SW: I hear what you say and you make a good point but are you also saying that popular art is often revived in the proceeding generation? The ‘King of Kitsch’ became ‘King of Retro’! Personally, I still don't like it! I will say, however, it is sad that he did not live to see his work in the national galleries. I think that if you are that popular, you should have a hanging or two regardless of personal taste.
When I first wanted to study art I recall a conversation with my Mom. She tried to dissuade me as she said that artists were only rich and famous when they were dead. I wonder if she remembers this as she is related to late Gregoire Boonzaier who enjoyed great success during his lifetime.
JS: I think the artists that are often recognised or venerated after they are gone are those who are trend-setters. Many artists that are seen in galleries and do well in their life-times have been more middle-of-the road and haven’t changed history, but were really good at what they do. I think your Ma was referring to the trend-setters. That you will also find in engineering, music and literature as well. Artists branded as popular once can be rediscovered. For example, John Singer Sargent (who is my absolute favourite) and Edward Seago. Many of the Victorian artists too.
SW: Ah, now I know why I couldn’t quite get a grip on your style. It is somewhere between Singer Sargent’s Realism and Edward Seago’s Post Impressionist. Realistic yet loose style! My favourites lean more to impressionism, does it matter? Why do we feel the need to put art into pigeon holes? Style isn’t important; it’s the art that is created. Has your work ever been criticised by the academics and if so, how did you overcome this?
JS: Frankly I do not give a hoot what academics think Sandi, because I have worked with them for years and found that the majority of them buy into a specific academic discourse, which in fact is nothing more really than a current academic fashion which in turn has a limited life-span. I remember the abstract artistes like Larry Scully etc. saying that representational art was dead and never to return and abstract was the thing of the future.
Now, art students laugh at that stuff because it looks so out of place and antiquated. New times, new discourses and new fashions. I have often been criticised by all sides. I never tried to overcome it at all, but ignored it and did what made me happy and interested.
SW: What are your concerns on contemporary art since the recent economic crisis?
JS: I have concerns about the term ‘contemporary’ because the word does not refer to work being produced now, but to work that lends itself to that particular discourse or fashion. What I find is interesting and of some concern is that the galleries that have gone to the wall since the economic meltdown; many have been essentially Contemporary galleries.
The more traditional galleries are doing OK it seems. Is this because when times are good there are more speculators who will take a risk, and then when the economy is tight they suddenly see that ‘the King has no clothes’ and shy away or go the safe route? Even Saatchi is offering his pile of builders’ rubble that passes for art to the British people.
So far the British people have not wanted it – why, if it’s supposed to be of such great value? All funding was cut to ‘The Visual Arts’ in the USA some years ago and now Britain has done the same - why? Who has benefited from those hand-outs in the past? Very few I fear.
SW: I actually think that the Art Fund budget cuts could be a good thing because it will force the focus back to art. A ludicrous amount of money is spent on administration and smug, self-satisfied staff. But that’s another topic and one which I would like to tackle very much.
So John, I gather that you prefer timeless themes with extended shelf life? How does this preference affect the longevity of your work, the turns of your career, and the relationship with your audience?
JS: I’m not an entertainer who has to make people happy or keep them entertained. I paint for me and am happy that others understand and like what I’m doing. My work is not demanding or clever, it is merely a record of things that amuse or interest me. I’m easily pleased and very curious.
I’m also not famous or hugely in demand. I just tick over year after year and that is fine with me. My large works can fetch reasonably high prices but I’m not, and probably will never been in the hundreds of thousands or millions group. I have, however, earned my living for 40 years from my art and still am doing that happily. That must be worth something?
SW: You are modest, John.
Later that afternoon as I thought of my conversation with John Smith I chuckled as I recalled an incident a few months ago. Jim, my husband, is to inherit some antiques and I was discussing this with my oldest daughter who dogmatically added: "Don't leave me any of that stuff when you die!"
This young lady with a sound art education and a great art appreciation mainly in abstract, cubism and fauvism then cast her eyes across the room and chirped: “But you CAN give me that John Smith painting!"
John will like that story.
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