When you wander into an art show called “Hidden Realities” by an artist you don’t know, free of preconceived notions and critical agendas, you may think that you’re merely passing time until you discover that you and time have parted company. If anything, it’s time that’s passing you, not the other way around, since the first painting you see holds you for maybe three or four minutes, and even then, it’s not easy to walk away. The woman in Mavis Smith’s subtly surreal painting, Solace, is looking at you as if you and she have a history. She’s got your number; she’s looking right through you.
It’s the other way around in Night Gown. By all rights a beauty in a silky, darkly lustrous dream of fabric should be seductive, not dazed and vulnerable. Far from putting you in your place, she seems to be saying, “Understand me, tell me who I am, tell me where I am.”
By the time you come to Small Sacrifices, whether you know it yet or not, you’re in Mavis Smith’s movie. While you may feel no particular compulsion to figure out what the “sacrifices” are, you can’t help wondering what it is this wise, wounded, endearing girl has given up. Like the subject in Night Gown, she seems lost, new to the world. Before you start feeling protective, you remind yourself that she’s a work of art like the others, “egg tempera on panel,” and the artist’s love for her is protection enough. She’s safe in there forever, as timeless as the elaborately detailed storybook tapestry passing as wallpaper behind her.
In Mavis Smith’s edgy mystery movie disguised as an art exhibit, which will be at the James A. Michener Art Museum through May 20, a great deal of seriously expressive power is communicated through gaze and gesture, flesh tones, fabrics, garments (or their absence), and the sensuous lustre of the surface created by the artist’s meticulous employment of the medium she discusses in the catalogue under “The Fine Art of Tempera Painting”:
“It may seem strange to make pictures by mixing pigments into egg yolks, but people have been doing it for a long, long time …. The process can be tedious — or mesmerizing — depending on how you look at it. Once the pose is sketched in, I start building up layers of paint. Alternating between dry feathery brush strokes and sheer washes of color — back and forth, back and forth. This stage can take days or even weeks, but that’s when the direction and mood of the painting gradually reveal themselves.”
Smith describes being “in a very relaxed, almost hypnotic state” as mood and direction come together. In another statement, she says that the “build up” can require “hundreds of layers,” before it achieves “a luminous, ethereal quality.”
The terms Smith uses in describing herself at work are reflected in the hypnotic mood she creates, although “ethereal” doesn’t really fit the solid, smoothly formed physical presence of the seated woman in Solace, yes, it’s her again, I came back for another look, trying to figure out which movie actress she reminds me of; perhaps an older, wiser, earthier Scarlett Johansson.
It’s no accident that thoughts of movies keep surfacing, what with the Academy Awards looming next Sunday. More to the point, Smith has said that she’s “probably as much influenced by film directors” as by other painters. She likes the way certain older films (think Hitchcock and Kubrick) are shot “with especially tightly cropped frames and from unusual angles, with looming ceilings and odd shadows.” She is equally intrigued by “the idea of the beautiful, pristine surface with the subtle suggestion of a darker side hovering just below” or “around the corner, or in the next frame.” The gallery walls feature quotes from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, which she considers “a perfect example of smooth on the surface suburban life with a dark undercurrent.”
I began feeling the presence of David Lynch long before I came to the posted quote from Wild at Heart (“This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top,” says Laura Dern’s Lula). Having already picked up flashes of Lynch in the tranced-looking females with outsized jaws and equine faces in flatter, broader, closer-to-caricature works like Specks of Dust, Exile, Somnambulist, and The Key, I knew I was in Twin Peaks country when I saw the blonde girl in rust-colored top and worn-shiny jeans stretched out on a bed in Night Pool. I could almost hear the yearning, angst-saturated music of Angelo Badalamenti, a subtle “the-owls-are-not-what-they-seem” tingle running up the back of my neck at the thought of the surreal off-the-wall ABC series that captivated the nation in the first years of the nineties. Somehow Smith has endowed her females with something like the haunted and haunting aura that could make ominous presences of slowly revolving ceiling fans while network audiences obsessed on “Who killed Laura Palmer?” It all began when a plastic sheet was pulled back to reveal Laura’s face, scary beautiful in death, like a drowned sister to Botticelli’s Venus.
Best Picture Nominee
In an email exchange about films and Oscar night, Mavis Smith made special mention of The Descendants. When she pointed out what appealed to her in the Best Picture nominee — “serene on the surface but subtly disturbing around the edges” — she was obviously describing elements of her own work.
“We come into contact with dozens of people on a daily basis, catch their eyes for a brief moment and move on,” Smith observes in the Artist Statement, “never knowing the intricate accumulation of experience that forms their reality. My work is about that moment — hinting at a narrative, yet remaining intentionally elusive.”
A Mavis Smith moment in The Descendants occurs when George Clooney, in the course of tracking down the real estate agent his comatose wife was having an affair with, finds himself standing on a beach, at the water’s edge, conversing with the man’s wife (played by Judy Greer, who could have stepped right out of one of Mavis Smith’s paintings). Since we know that Clooney has been shaken half out of his wits by a trainwreck of converging crises, we’re intensely aware of the forces building up to a moment that for the friendly, unknowing woman is nothing more than a few casual words about her kids and Clooney’s. For Clooney, the meeting is a stunningly significant event, and he makes the audience feel every one of its, to use Smith’s words, “subtly disturbing” possibilities. We know he must be tempted to blow his cover and make her suffer the knowledge that’s tormenting him (misery loves company and vengeance is sweet). What makes Clooney’s performance Oscar-worthy is the way he’s able to communicate his character’s struggle to contain, contend with, and somehow express a storm of conflicting possibilities (something comparable to Smith’s “intricate accumulation”). Here’s a reasonably rational, centered human being doing his best to cope with (for a start) death, love, infidelity, outrage, guilt, property, and fatherhood.
Mavis Smith’s art, like the art of movie acting, is about expressing the virtually inexpressible, those “hidden realities” cited in the exhibit’s title. One of the show’s most haunting images is staring out at you from Wallpaper, which contains, slyly ignored by the title, the most riveting close-up in the exhibit, a Laura Palmeresque face that holds the mixture of “mystery” and “elegance” Smith has identified as one of her goals. “I was interested in the close cropping of the face,” she writes, “and the proximity of the intense, repetitive wallpaper pattern.” To which she adds, “At one time, women were encouraged to ‘blend into the wallpaper’ but in light of today’s social hierarchy, the wallpaper might take over the room.”
Obviously “wallpaper” is a loaded phrase for a female artist dedicated to presenting female mystery, beauty, strength, and presence. Smith recalls meeting a “very tiny older couple” at the exhibit’s opening reception. “At one point the woman pulled me aside and whispered ‘your paintings give a woman confidence’” — which made the director of “Hidden Realities,” the movie, “feel as good as anything I have ever heard about my work.”
If you can’t get to the museum, be sure to take a tour of Mavis Smith’s work at http://mavissmithart.com/Exhibition%20HR%20page.htm.