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The many faces of Lionel Smit

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When one first looks at an imposing portrait by Lionel Smit, one is arrested by the sheer beauty of the subject of his close-up portrait. Like billboards, their faces capture your attention, the viewer constructs an imagined self in the painted anonymous personas. One looks at the carefree splashes of paint and brushstrokes juxtaposed with the intricately created facial structures on the monumental vastness of the canvas.

Smit’s faces are epic and grand filling the colourless walls of the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg for his solo exhibition entitled Accumulation. His largest solo show to date; the works are an accumulation of faces, of years of experimentation between sculpture and painting. The works range from large canvases splashed with various colours, prints with monotone colours to bronze heads filling the space of the gallery floor.

The images are instantly recognisable in Smit’s signature style, the faces almost familiar and predictable, one he uses often.  His images gained popularity on a global scale when one of his works was featured on the cover of a Christie’s auction catalogue in London and recently at the BP Portrait Award at the entrance of the National Portrait Gallery. Mostly female faces, he references everyday people often presenting a Cape ‘Malay Girl’ which attempt to reflect the beauty and energies of the South African peoples.  The range of faces becomes part of larger story that Smit conveys regarding the human condition. One is drawn in by the youth and beauty of the unblemished faces. The nostalgic young figure stares beyond the canvas or directly at the viewer in its vulnerability and display of dignity, in perfect symmetry and form of classical Greek sculpture.

Born in Pretoria in 1982, Smit lives and works in a warehouse studio in Stellenbosch, Cape Town which houses his large canvases and sculptures. Mentored by his father, established sculptor Anton Smit, he developed an interest in painting from an early stage, filling his father’s studio with growing canvases. He has been exhibiting locally and internationally for nearly 10 years and has established a substantial international reputation with collectors ranging from European Investment Bank, Laurence Graff from Delaire Wine Estate to the Rand Merchant Bank. His works have often featured in the grand homes on Top Billing and in the decorative backgrounds of the House and Garden pages.

In the massive installation Accumulation of Disorder consisting of dozens of heads, each uniquely finished in automotive paint sees the artist experimenting with various colour schemes and spatters, regurgitating the same face in an effort for a different result.  Andrew Lamprecht notes in the exhibition essay that perhaps “this work hints at the different routes through life that a person may pass, hinting that one person may have differing trajectories dependent on the experiences they are exposed to at any given point.”

The bold painterly qualities of his works with their red swatches and dripping orange paints are reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s works in which “the physicality of the paintings’ clotted and oil-caked surfaces was key to understanding…the artists’ existential struggle”. One is drawn into the painting, taking the small details, illustrating through an aesthetic quality the emotions and feelings within one’s mind.  The physical act of painting itself takes precedence as an essential aspect of the finished work or concern of the artist. “[One is] submerged in the depths of the Pollockesque slashes and splashes arising from his first explosive burst of creative energy. Then working methodically, Smit builds up strokes of paint until the image emerges, and his various dialogues play out on the canvas,” Sanford S. Shaman stated about Smit’s work.

Ultimately, Smit’s works take an aesthetic position, the abstract and minimalist qualities of the canvas taking precedence over the image itself. The gestural brushwork and patterns create a figurative palette that draws the viewer closer to inspect it. “It allows me to engage the viewer with the surface area up close, as he or she investigates the drips and swathes of paint. I want them to see that it is only paint, [and] then discover that image and the power of the portrait as they step away,” Smit said in an interview. He states he begins with the abstract forms and colours on the canvas, finishing with formation of the attractive face, much like one would mould a lump of formless clay into a recognisable image. This magnetic exchange between painting and sculpture is an inherent quality in his works. There seems to be a dialogue between the sculptures and the paintings and the artist and the works.

The colourful palette of Lionel Smit makes for aesthetically pleasing viewing with the ability to brighten up any room. The colours have an effect on the viewer on a purely first degree level but lack a deeper exploration in its repetitive imagery, the recurring theme seems modestly superficial in its inherent nature. Smit aims his focus on the painterly qualities of the works, the medium and abstract qualities more important than the conceptual subject matter. When one looks at a Lionel Smit portrait, one is touched by the aesthetic beauty that he is able to portray through various shades of paint and moulded clay, one is able to sit and look at the image and be captured by the image in a strange unconscious way and one is left wondering about the image, searching to create a story, a persona with a history, whether this is done intentionally or unintentionally by the artist, one is able to ultimately appreciate the many faces of Lionel Smit.

Accumulation runs until 27 July 2013.

Text by Marilyn de Freitas.
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About Marilyn de Freitas

Online Journalist for Art.co.za

One comment on “The many faces of Lionel Smit

  1. Alex Msibi
    March 2, 2014

    Lionel Smit you really inspire me alot your works really shows the true dedication you have on your works ,brother keep up the good work ,God gave you this Talent !!!

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