Little Q+A: Erin Smith + Bradley Rubenstein


Erin Smith lives and works in Australia. Her work has been exhibited in New York at solo shows at Amy Li and at a group show at Berry Campbell. She has also exhibited extensively in Australia. This year her work will be exhibited in two group shows in New York. In her own words: "I live in a small wooden house in Australia. I'm an over-excitable Australian — in love with New York City. I have a lot of energy, so if I'm not painting, I'm researching, experimenting, and chatting with other artists, mentors, and galleries."   

Bradley Rubenstein: It was interesting to see your work in person (at Berry Campbell, NY) after having followed you online for a while. One gets the sense of the physicality of your painting through pictures, but in person they come across far more viscerally. One of the tensions you set up in your work is the relation between a familiar image and pure gestural painting. This kind of image layering is familiar to us now; painters like Polke and Salle come to mind. But there is something in your work that is more about the passages of direct, abstract painting that remind me of Clyfford Still. I have a feeling that the painterly passages interest you as much, if not more, than the imagery.   

Erin Smith: Absolutely, I enjoy both aspects. With the more abstract sections it feels like I am treating myself, to take the painting wherever I seem to feel at the time. It's very freeing and often the most exciting part. The imagery is ever-evolving throughout the duration of the painting.   

Many works end up as thick, layered stories. And areas are deleted, leaving small chosen remnants to begin a new twist in the adventure.    

BR: Can you talk a little about your background—what were some of your early influences?   

ES: Studying and holding a bachelor of design arts from the Australian Academy of Design in Melbourne and growing up in Queensland definitely has played a part in my exploration of cartoons, advertising, and cultural references. Also, my time studying at the New York Studio School was a pinnacle for me and my practice. All of this works into the composition to give a sense of the narrative.   

The importance of flux over stability throughout Sigmar Polke's work is something I've been greatly influenced by. I draw inspiration from everyone and what every day brings. I'm very energetic and highly excitable. I think somehow this comes through in the work.    

BR: It’s interesting that you say “narrative." Do you see stories in your work, like when you paint little scenes? Or even with some of the paintings that seem to start as portraits, do you have a story in mind when you begin, or is the narrative aspect you refer to more just the way the picture is painted? 

ES: I think some work begins as a portrait, and then that portrait grows on me and I begin to build a narrative around that. Often that narrative is a complete reflection of what is happening in my world at that time. In one portrait, I felt...yes, this is complete. Then a number of days later he had wrestlers on his shoulders, and his hat became engulfed in fruit.   

BR: There is always a tendency to try to group art into labeled categories, or trends, or whatnot. I think this is particularly true when artists deal with what was once called “appropriation” in the 80s. Now we have the mash-up in music, zombie formalism in painting, and whatever Richard Prince is doing now. Your work falls somewhere between this sort of thing, defying categorization in an interesting way. For example, your imagery isn’t immediately recognizable pop icons, but kind of quirky. David Humphrey and Gina Magid come to mind as far as painters who are working in the same way. Your work seems to be more about pure painting as opposed to painting about painting.   

ES: Yes, I'm not terribly great with categorization. The work is an expression of me at the time, so, often I paint over or distort an image that became too realistic. The process is of utmost importance. It's my meditation.    

BR: So would it be accurate to say that the process of painting is more important to you than the art object that results? In some ways that is kind of an old-fashioned idea, with irony and whatnot being largely the current artistic currency.  

ES: Of course it needs to feel right and that it is the end. Perhaps that feeling leads me to know when to stop. Like many others, it can be hard to let go and finish. It feels like you’ve just finished a great book.   

BR: You live in Sydney and show a lot in New York. How does living there influence what you do, or is the art world so international now that regional influence doesn't really exist anymore?  

ES: I’m influenced by everything. I love what’s happening in Sydney and Australia as a whole. I also love New York; I love the energy of the city. I do incorporate a lot of old Australian cars in my work, perhaps as an homage to where I grew up.  

BR: You mention being influenced by other mediums, like advertising and cartoons. Do you see yourself working in other mediums, like film or photography, or does your interest lie more in searching for subjects to paint about?   

ES: I love digital work, however painting is where my heart is.   

BR: Are you working on anything new that we should know about?   

ES: I do have a number of group shows this year and plan to be back in New York. I seem to never stop painting. I hope to make something a little different this year and push myself a bit out of my comfort zone.

Interview conducted by Bradley Rubenstein

domMr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.