Occasionally we cross paths with others whose energy and nature is unfathomable. How many people can we say live in pure alignment, fully devoted to the very essence from which they came and not deviating from this truth? Look around. There are few. For them their commitment to love isn’t a crusade, it’s a way of being that they’ve chosen never to ignore. On the other hand, for many of us, understanding who we are and who we want to be can take decades. I know that I fell into the latter, so being invited into the home of a man whose very being has been art from before he could speak was nothing short of a gift. An even greater gift was being shown that there are true, open, trusting people who are willing to share their stories and a part of themselves with no reservation. This is how I came to know Mark T. Smith, an artist whose process knows no bounds and a man whose creativity could be likened to a horn of plenty, bearing unpredictable fruit never in short supply.
Mark T. Smith in the living room of his home. Works by the artist from left to right: Guilt on Parade, 2010, mixed media on canvas, 30 X 30 in.; Bull, 2010, ink on paper, 22 X 30 in.; Flesh and Blood Builds an Empire, 2010, acrylic, charcoal, graphite, ink, color pencil, and paint pen on canvas, 36 X 48 in.; © Mark T. Smith/Photo by Seanica Howe.
Smith grew up in the Northeastern United States and spent much of his life, including his training, in New York. The city’s liveliness is reflected in all of his work but most notably in his paintings, where Smith packs every nook and cranny of his canvases with heavy strokes of bold color anchored with blacks and whites. The highly active rhythm of most all his creations are reminiscent of the overwhelming sensations of experiencing Times Square for the first time, before one has learned to tune out the zingy noise of the streets and its people, or the intensity of a lightshow or fireworks in the dead of night. Early in his career he created video games and graphics, so the quick movement and robotic features of those interests are present. Signs and religious icons have crept in as well. Madonna, the bull, and the rabbit are frequently seen in his creations and often function as central figures, serving as a point of entry or the assigned guide for grounding each piece and placating the mind while it explores each detail and chapter of the pictorial novel Smith densely construes.
Mark T. Smith, Surreal Madonna with Rabbit, Part 2, 2010, acrylic paint, oil bar, color pencil, graphite, charcoal, and spray paint on canvas, 36 X 60 in.; © Mark T. Smith/Courtesy of the artist’s studio, Miami.
Like many great artists who came a lifetime before him, the lifeblood of all that Smith creates has been a consequence of the figure. His version of abstract surrealism may fail to so much as resemble the body from which Smith studied, but without its complete understanding he could not exorcise its demons, capture its meaning from within and without, toil with its existence, and force his viewer to delve into the supernatural. His paintings and drawings are laden with symbols and invite the audience to contemplate for hours, or maybe a lifetime, the underpinnings and meaning behind the fragmented visual storyboards he creates. Smith himself says that once he truly understands a painting, its value is lost. It’s the work’s ability to challenge the viewer, to consistently function as a riddle never to be understood, that tests its validity and sustainability as art.
Mark T. Smith, Charlatan Map with Lesson, 2010, mixed media on paper, 43 X 58 in.; © Mark T. Smith/Courtesy of the artist’s studio, Miami.
There’s something wild and frustrating about Smith’s work and this is what lends it power, like Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, the cubism of Pablo Picasso, or the mysterious language of Jean-Michel Basquiat. As a viewer, instinctively one knows that somehow, someway, the chaos that’s been created makes sense, and you wait for it to lock into place, like the final twist of a Rubik’s Cube. But oddly, it never does. It leaves you wanting and searching for more. His drawings and works in mixed media, like Charlatan Map with Lesson (2010), where Smith begs to question the current financial exploitation of the medical arts, follow the same notion but mercifully guide the viewer with words and signals, helping them down a more decipherable, less camouflaged road for understanding his message.
Mark T. Smith, Magnetic, 2009, cast parian, 37 X 29 X 1.5 in.; © Mark T. Smith/Courtesy of the artist’s studio, Miami.
Oddly, the symbology Smith chooses is also the most accurate representation of his life and work. Fertility is often associated with the hard-nosed bull and the leaping rabbit, animals that leave abundance in their wake. Smith has entered into new endeavors over and over, watching them grow and then exiting when they become mundane and adequately structured, allowing himself to evolve and flow. His life experiences are too numerous to mention but his innovative mind has reached into poster design for Walt Disney, the Olympics, and the U.S. Open, just to name a few. And in 1996 his work was chosen for the highly coveted Absolute Vodka campaign. His academic teaching roster runs up and down the East Coast, from Parsons School of Design and Pratt to as far south as the Miami Ad School. And just as one media is abandoned, another is worked. He jumps from painting to printmaking to sculpture and back again, never satisfied and ever searching for a way to properly explore his thoughts, questions, and visions.
Truth be told, I’ve never met anyone quite like Smith. Sure, I’ve known lots of people who say they are artists of one kind or another, but I’ve never met a being whose very motive is to get to the heart of his process---an exhaustive effort to peel the onion. It’s reflected in every move he makes in his journey through life and it manifests in his physical creations. The deeper the quest, the more densely layered he and his work become. And when going deeper isn’t an option, a new direction is taken. It’s an insatiable drive for process that owns him. It IS him. Sometimes it beats like a faint staccato on a snare drum. On other days, it’s the loud, deliberate thud of a bass. Either way, it beats---always in rhythm, never stopping. The composition is infinite. We should all be so fearless.
Mark T. Smith is currently based in Miami, Fl, where he also teaches. For more information about him and access to more of his work visit www.marktsmith.com.
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