Meet Jed Smalley
Ok. It has been a seriously long time since I’ve been able to not only write about art but also offer a chance to see it with me, in private, in person (masks required, obvi). Shoot me a message if you are intrigued. So, no more looking backward, only forward. As a part of my new gig, I’m writing about the exhibitions mounted at Full Circle’s two galleries, Catalyst Contemporary (523 North Charles Street) and Full Circle Gallery (33 East 21st Street). Here’s my first go at the exhibition at Catalyst by Baltimore County retired doctor Jed Smalley, which closes on October 31.
Where do control and chance meet? Arthur Jedson Smalley is an artist who is deeply committed to this balancing act. In fact, it is an essential part of his creativity. Smalley makes sculptures in wood, using both found and milled lumber, which form organic Möbius strips, and paintings of landscapes using latex house paints dripped from brushes attached to long sticks. The tension between the artist’s hand and the inherent tendencies of the medium tips one way or the other within the course of making the work. It is only in the struggle between artist and material that Smalley is uncomfortable enough to be comfortable with the results.
Smalley starts his paintings with a particular landscape in mind (often Baltimore County), one that he is deeply familiar with and visits often to study its forms and the way light plays across its features (only very rarely does he paint en plein air). Working with the painting surface (he uses artists’ board not canvas) lying on the floor, Smalley drips colors onto the board, all the while trying to control what that daub or drip does. Because of the length of the tool of application and the viscosity of the paints, Smalley must embrace the pooling of the paint, accepting and counting on any accidents. He says, “paintings are compromises,” and admits that he tries to paint from his subconscious, letting go of any predetermined ideas save for the generalized landscape giving it visual structure. First, several spots of color are placed to begin the framework of the image. Next begins a ballet of color choices and placements of subsequent drips, which must interlock with the one to which it is adjacent. Accidents are accepted and desired. While it may sound counterintuitive—would not an artist wish for complete control of his/her facility—for Smalley, it is precisely this tension that enables the works to be made. He admits that every attempt at a more conventional method of accomplishing a landscape falls flat. In the battle for control, beautiful scenes emerge composed of daubs of colors that at once suggest specific and generalized landscapes.
Smalley is an exceptional colorist. His palette is widely varied and works perfectly. The landscapes’ dappled light achieved through drips of colors makes the paintings sparkle and creates movement. They elicit a feeling of walking through woods on a bright sunny day. The paintings are in the vein of the French Pointillists George Seurat and Paul Signac in that daubs of formless paint and juxtaposed colors coalesce to create shadows, tree limbs, and streams. They take pure advantage of the human brain’s ability to fill in the gaps and change depending on one’s distance from the surface. While one can focus on the composition that reveals itself, one can also shift focus to the negative spaces between the daubs, changing the composition yet again. At once abstract and completely readable as landscape, Smalley’s works are pure delight belying the struggle and tension that goes into their creation.
While the artist’s struggle between control and accident combine to offer atmospheric walks in the woods in the paintings, the sculptures are concerned with different aspects of chance. Each sculpture forms a self-contained loop of wood. Sometimes natural segments of thick branches are joined in tight, sinewy jumbles, their construction masked. Sometimes blocks of 4-x-4-inch pieces of lumber are cut in trapezoidal shapes and joined without hiding the sculpture’s construction. Depending on the angles of the cuts, the next piece added takes the form in a new direction. In their continuousness, they are versions of a Möbius strip in which the beginning and end are one and the same. They are at once organic and constructed, natural and unnatural, beautiful and rough, whimsical and serious.
The surfaces of Smalley’s paintings glisten and are tactile. They change depending on one’s viewpoint and are both light and airy and dense and saturated. The sculptures are elegant and curvy, disjointed and smooth, confounding and gentle in their loveliness. Bursting with potential energy, they exhibit a variant on the tension present in the paintings. Smalley’s talents are fully on display in this body of work. The works are worth the time to absorb their beauty comprised of surprising elements that come together in symphony.
Ann's art blog
A small corner of the interwebs to share thoughts on objects I acquired for the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection, research I've done on Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17, experiments in intaglio printmaking, and the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair.