The French poet Michel Deguy once wrote that, “Poetry, like love, risks everything on signs.” In a similar sense, the problem with abstract art is that it’s abstract. Any piece of art that an abstract artist begins work on necessarily has to be finished by the many viewers who look at it, changing its meaning with each fresh perspective.
That’s the struggle that abstract painter Leslie Smith III is dealing with in his first solo show at downtown’s beta pictoris gallery, As I Remembered. A professor at the University of Wisconsin’s art department, Smith admits to an unfashionable desire to have his personal inspiration bleed through to the viewer, creating fascinating, inventive tensions in his work.
Smith works almost entirely in blues, oranges, and shades of gray, but As I Remembered is anything but simple or remote. The unusual shapes of the canvases, the dance between strict geometric figures and impressionistic blurs, and the color and interplays of light lurking under coats of black paint all give the sense that the paintings are somehow reaching out to the audience. Though never overtly political, Smith’s paintings do challenge the viewer to make up his or her mind on their meaning.
Even though it can seem faintly unbalancing for the viewer, the exhibition can be soothing, too. Like former beta pictoris artist Pete Schulte, Smith’s darker works are often warm, inviting and human, and the show as a whole has internal callbacks that make it feel like the paintings are in dialogue with each other. For instance, a study of different orange shapes in Honest Boy, a playful not-quite-Cubist representation of Pinocchio, is mirrored across the gallery in the massive Lay Away, which features vivid orange figures clawing out of a black canvas — or being sucked into the quagmire.
The dialogue is rooted in a sense of character and scene, as Smith creates dramas out of the power dynamics of human relationships. His messages are subtle and very much open to interpretation, but they’re undeniably present, lurking beneath each surface diversion in Smith’s paintings, many of them rooted in emotional pain.
Smith’s work reveals a profound, but nuanced, sense of control, whether it’s exploring the domination to which people subject one another, or whether it’s Smith’s own yearning to be understood. Rather than inklings of suggestions of ideas, he wants to communicate exactly what he (or his characters) were experiencing when he painted each work, transporting the viewer to an emotional prism where Smith’s memories are recreated in stunning games of shape and color.
beta pictoris gallery is located at 2411 2nd Ave. N. As I Remembered will be on display through March 21. Gallery hours are Wednesday-Friday 1-4 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and the show is free. For more information, call (205) 413-2999.