As I approach the exhibition at The Curator Gallery and peer through the front wall of glass, the art inside reminds me of a modernist painter. Maybe someone who began their career as a Clyfford Still fan and has now pushed their palette past complex chromatic correlations to a more condensed and minimalist black and white expression. To my surprise they are not paintings at all, but nine color photographs captured in large format through the lens of a view camera, all created in 2013. They show images captured from one of my favorite places, Iceland, where—I am guessing—geothermally warmed streams cut through the snow-covered landscape to form distinct and profound divisions.
Smith is a Brooklyn-based photographer who was born in the United Kingdom in 1978. The curator of this exhibition, 3walls, regards Smith as an artist who focuses primarily on landscapes as he looks for “a response to places that are edges of one thing or another, the edge where land meets water, where day meets night.” You can certainly see this desire in this recent suite of large-scale photographs, which range in size from 30” X 37.5” to 50” X 81”.
Jonathan Smith, Streams #10, 2013, c-print; Courtesy of the Artist and The Curator Gallery.
Using various exposure times, Smith manipulates the depth and clarity of the detail, not to mention the stark emptiness of the white. This slight adjustment directly enhances the drama of the active and invasive waterways that cut precise swaths across the whitewashed landscape. The resulting steely blue fissures mimic the convergence of tectonic plates that define this land, while the austerity of the imagery and the simplicity of the elements brings the force and beauty of nature to the fore.
In Stream #9 the curls and foamy rapids of the water’s movement trump all detail and interest in the solid masses of white space above and below the stream’s edge. This is a marked contrast from Stream #25, which has a similar flag-like composition, but combines a longer exposure with a calmer current that smoothes out the detail in the water considerably. Both photographs are equally hypnotic and contemplative though the relative stillness of #25 makes for a more abstract form.
In the diptych Stream #10 and the single image of Stream #33 Smith presents a more distant view of Icelandic streams, drawing attention to their linear paths. As a result, these photographs appear more painterly than the others. Their overall compositions recall the gestural play in the works of artists such as Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, and certain ink drawings by Robert Motherwell.
Jonathan Smith, Streams #9, 2013, c-print; Courtesy of the Artist and The Curator Gallery.
These artists, who boldly swathed one or two strokes on a pristine white canvas, come to mind even more in the mid-range views of photographs such as Stream #8 and Stream #2. It is as if Smith has channeled their visions through this frosty landscape. There are elements of passing time and personal memory suggested by the darker tonal changes in the wetter snow that borders the streams. Despite the fact there are no signs of life in these images they do not feel barren, but charged with an energy that is hard to name, yet harder to miss.
There’s much to see and experience in Iceland. In the three times I’ve been there, each exposure has brought me closer to understanding the power and presence of nature, and the endurance and adaptability of mankind. In these photographs by Smith I see and can experience a different Iceland than what I have come to know, a place that is more subtle in color and detail, yet no less striking. When traveling in Iceland one is sure to be warned against crossing a crusty old, moss laden lava field without a knowledgeable guide, as many have fallen through the unsteady moss that fills the hidden fissures and been severely burned by the incredibly hot water that lies just below the surface. Here, in these photographs, I see a new interpretation of this natural element of danger that creates vistas equally beautiful and sublime.
(Image at top: Jonathan Smith, Streams #8, 2013, c-print; Courtesy of the Artist and The Curator Gallery.)