’The Flowering of Phantoms’ by Anj Smith at Hauser & Wirth, New York
The talented Anj Smith has breathed new life into painting over the course of the last decade. Known for her way with colour and her deft hand at replicating even the most minute of details, the London-based artist opened her latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in New York with a flourish this week - the works had already sold out.
’The Flowering of Phantoms’ pays tribute to themes that have long prevailed in her work, such as gender, identity, evolution and the representation of the psychological space, to name a few. Produced over 18 months, each of the 11 pieces is small in scale; most of them are only slightly larger than A4.
The works range from desolate landscapes to haunting portraits and ethereal still-lifes. When the viewer gets up close, and one has no choice but to, each piece brims with impressive, painterly detail that harks back to the Dutch Golden Age.
Building on her earlier work, these paintings throw a stronger focus on colour and painting language. From thread-thin veins riddling subjects’ faces to sheer swathes of chiffon and densely worked impasto that forms a rocky ossuary, every painted element of Smith’s work exudes an otherworldly quality in celebration of the medium. The backgrounds alone are luminous bodies of crimson and pewter. In the portraits, there are often as many layers of paint as there are layers of skin.
’One of the main concepts of this show is painting as there is a slight snobbery in the art world towards [it],’ Smith mused. ’Some institutions prefer to promote other types of art because they are seen as more contemporary. But [painting] facilitates everything for me, it’s so liberating. You can paint time, gravity and all those things. The reason that it’s still around is that there’s just something so seductive about it.’
Although executed with the refinement and intricacy of a Flemish master, Smith’s paintings are undoubtedly rooted in the modern day. She has inserted plenty of contemporary motifs, such as Vogue menthol cigarette butts (’The most glamorous ones to smoke,’ she said, with a laugh) checkered Prada blouses and David Bowie-esque glasses. Their inclusion is far from trivial though; an Alexander McQueen knuckleduster ring festooned with skulls displaces the traditional symbol for death and mortality with a modern icon of wealth and luxury.
The true beauty of Smith’s work is that each insular painting is backed by multiple tiers of carefully conceived symbolism. Every piece is a self-contained commentary on the state of the times. It’s this inherent, diverging tension - which consistently appears throughout her oeuvre - that makes her work so compelling.