Anj Smith: making sense of desire and anxiety through a painter’s forensic language
British artist Anj Smith unveils her latest body of work in the exhibition ‘If Not, Winter’ at Hauser & Wirth’s Zurich gallery. The process has not been easy; most of her recent paintings were created while recovering from a period of chronic anxiety.
Talking of the persistent taboo around mental health in society, Smith says, ‘I’m not remotely embarrassed about talking about mental health, or recognising that this experience fed into the work to some degree. If acknowledging what happened to me normalises this common horror and reduces any residual taboo, then I’m glad.’
In her paintings, Smith navigates her personal experience of anxiety, using earthy tones of oil paint on linen. Phantasmagorical figures with their backs turned to the viewer meet landscapes littered with symbolic objects. There’s a sense of fragility, but also freedom. Their incomplete narratives are dreamlike, sensual and distant—an atmosphere that has become Smith’s trademark.
A tiny autobiographical work made during her initial recovery period was ‘very unusual for me’ but developed into other works. ‘For example, the pathological, obsessive minutiae started to evolve in places to include tiny, multi-coloured, vertical tors of paint that stood proud of the surface. They seemed to bear witness to survival and added a celebratory aspect to that kind of forensic painterly language.’
Literature has been a constant source of reference for Smith—who grew up in Kent with four sisters and little entertainment aside from books. A key inspiration for this language was Sappho, an archaic Greek lyric poet from Lesbos.
Most of her work has been lost, but her rumination on the complexity of female eroticism and desire contained in the fragments that have survived stand – ‘in striking contrast to the flat cliché of the female body as passive receptacle of male desire. Her descriptions reveal eroticism to be an architecture of the mind as well as “limb-loosening” physicality’, as Smith puts it.
‘And the fact that her muses were women was also deliberately misrepresented by male historians to fit a heteronormative agenda,’ she adds. ‘For me, her work became a springboard from which to think about the manipulated asymmetry of the cannon.’
This might be Smith’s most personal show yet, but her paintings aren’t only autobiographical: ‘Among other things, the micro personal experience of anxiety opens out to address a macro sense of communal unease.’