JESSE LEROY SMITH: FORCE MAJEURE
Tremenheere Gallery, nr. Gulval, Penzance
25th May to 23rd June 2019
In anticipation of his forthcoming exhibition in the impressive, oak framed Tremenheere Gallery I have been fortunate enough to see some of the ongoing developments in Jesse Leroy Smith’s recent painting practice. The final selection, overseen by independent art critic Sacha Craddock as curatorial advisor, promises to be rich in imagery and content.
On the artist’s Instagram feed in the run up to the show we read that visitors will experience an “Immersive frieze of paintings across both gallery floors with (an) arcade of collages, photographs, drawings and prints.”
This selection of work draws upon a decade of experimental projects, which is apt as I was first introduced to Leroy Smith’s paintings, prints and drawings about nine years ago when we were both participating (separately) in a Brighton Festival event. My first impressions of his work were two-fold, with the most immediate visceral impact being for the powerful visual presence of the mainly portrait imagery developed from observations of his two children. These I found discomfortingly transgressive in the sense of looking and feeling both human and idol-like, as if to undermine notions of pure individuality or sedate portraiture. The portraits were not necessarily of the children so much as from their lives. Physical poses, looks and gestures transformed them from individuals to archetypes, for in those early years life has an imaginative and theatrical edge constructed through play and enhanced with costume.
The other impression had less to do with the immediate impact of the image (though essential to it) but was one of great admiration for his application of drawing skills. I recall thinking that, unusually for many contemporary figurative painters, here is someone who can draw within the painting – that is within the methodology of the practice, assuredly and authentically aligned to concept and execution. Undoubtedly the talent to make a mark intentionally, especially with a difficult medium like paint, relies as much on the artist’s psychic experience as of the result of an academic educational training. The manual nuances of painting, and drawing and printmaking, in Leroy Smith’s work encompass qualities of a physical and visual confrontation with the visual subject as both materiality (e.g. see how the paint behaves) and mark (painterliness and linear qualities evincing shape as form). The weak images made by so many others rely on look alone and are ethically redundant. Not so here, for in the latter stages of ‘Force Majeure’, as an unplanned project relating to real life circumstances, it appears that this ability to develop the potency of the figurative image persists, with a rawness exploited to the point of near destruction in the drawing content. Empirically, if this is not a contradiction, Leroy Smith reveals the facts of the imagination.
The two standard definitions of the term force majeure can be compounded into one seemingly paradoxical interpretation by this exhibition. For unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract, and/or utilising irresistible compulsion or superior strength, might be summarised by a well-worn cliché: from adversity comes strength. Despite the trials and tribulations of juggling relationships, purposeful endeavor, and self-worth, the results are impressive and uplifting.
An individual’s circumstances are personal, but the consequences and reactions to adversity have an impact that operates on (and with) one’s immediate family and friends, or in the case of creative outlets, can be transformed into the relevant art form. With compulsion, a veritable strength if channeled positively, generates, creates and realises ambition. If there is one thing an artist needs it is strength in commitment to image making and to finding a voice that speaks truths, however confused, damning and disheartening at times.
Interestingly, in a discussion with artist and writer Paul Becker, Leroy Smith has explained that the main focus of the show, a frieze of up to 18 paintings, his ten-year retrospective is a form of apologia:
“As a parent, son, friend, lover, teacher we fail. Let alone the environment. This frieze is an attempt to makes sense of how we can’t cope with being human. For me, painting is a medium of doubt and speculation, what is smeared away is the potential exhilaration.”
Doubt and speculation… these states of being can haunt us all, especially when attempting to progress and develop ideas and to finding meaning through our visual arts practice. In the most recent imagery of the frieze we see many figures, often in a state of becoming or disintegration. If you have followed Leroy Smith’s development this is not necessarily a new development for the individual figure, especially in his impressive range of portraiture over the years. But here the scenarios feel speculative, as the surrounding landscapes expand to a more dissonant environmental space that could be read as dystopian. I prefer to regard these spaces as potentially mythological (echoing and reviving the past) or even futuristic, where lessons might be learned. The sense of time is Bergsonian rather than Cartesian: mobile and fluid, impossible to measure and avoiding an exegesis of fully-fledged facts alone that might induce stasis. A cinematic quality pervades the frieze imagery that induces a sense of an unraveling of time without conclusive certainty – such is the experience of real life.
The imagery is very open to interpretation. For example, in one panel the father-like figure could be a form of self-portrait (for the male painter) or a fictionalized ‘other’. Or perhaps acknowledges a loss of one’s own childhood for the responsibilities of adulthood. Alternatively, on a mythological level, is the monstrous, colourless, male figure the Bogey Man (or the Green Man) lurking both in the subconscious and in the forest? Or is this a Greek god: Apollo, Ares, Dionysus or Hermes? When I checked with the artist he revealed that the character is transcribed from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, ‘La Belle et la Bête’ (Beauty and the Beast). From the IMDb trailer the epic lines: “Love can turn a man into a beast… Love can also make an ugly man beautiful”, add poignancy to looking again at Leroy Smith’s images. Certainly, the imagery from his paintings, prints and drawings continue an exploration of the poetics of the visual, where the formal and material qualities of the imagery subsume a narrative that is purposefully open to interpretation at a gut level. How else does one react to a mise en scène of psychological disintegration and ongoing, redemptive recovery? Might this exhibition represent a healthy period of change and of development – despite the sometimes fractured topology, where disembodied arms and lips, or the split-faced, mask-like vestiges inhabit these works?
And what of the animal parts? A bird’s head, a dog (domestic or wild, it may not matter), a pig, bears. We share this planet after all, despite our tendency to consider the world our own in anthropomorphic delusion. Soulful feeling is surely dispersed into all living things and the latent animism, however dispersed and distressed, envelops us all. Because all the world is (really not) a stage.
On a practical level, especially when considering the paintings, the medium is applied confidently, often generously but not necessarily thickly (though sometimes it is) but skillfully allowing the medium its own characteristics. This could be the flowing nature of thinned oils or an area of sticky mastication. Colour is as crucial as the linear/drawing content. Sometimes brash, though often subtle in effect, the colour creates the mood of spaces. Environments are liminal, characters pensive and ruminatory, though clearly part of the space and therefore the unfolding story. Literal, physical surfaces are visceral, compounding the mood. There is a confident interplay between the illustrative image and the qualities of the substance, its shapes, forms, tone and colour.
The sequencing of a frieze references storytelling of course, and from our Greek and Roman cultural heritage great stories and events are made public. In a modern context there is something of the poster too, whereby the format and sequencing of a display of paintings also becomes public in the gallery environment. But whereas the commercial poster is designed to clearly communicate, influence and bring attention to some circumstance or to graphically convey information, the richness of the narrative painting tradition insists on far more prolonged contemplation to enter the depths of novelistic truths and mythologies. The mystery must be shrouded in plain sight – must be emotional and experiential.
Despite reflecting on personal upheaval over a ten-year period, Leroy Smith’s paintings appear to be in a state of becoming, as opposed to the fragmented and unresolved. Contrary to a notion of personal or cultural history compromised by circumstances, change is the nature of things (and events). There can be, and is, a sense of the transitional within completed compositions. If a figure or an environment in his paintings sometimes appears piecemeal we might read this as necessary shorthand, implying a sense of time and a developing narrative despite the retrospective nature of ‘Force Majeure’.
Jesse Leroy Smith’s images appear to be found through the process of making the work, rather than pre-planned. There is also something of the theatre and the cinema about the scenarios, whereby we can safely relate if viewing from a distance, outside of events. We might all connect with sometimes playful, or challenging, imagery of relationships with others and ourselves and with accepted or expected norms that are ideal more than actual. These various narratives may not be exclusively social or familial worlds but are also shared, universal, psychological constructs. It is in the nature of truly contemporaneous art, that it constantly revives itself in and for the present and through the eyes of the beholder. This explains the over-arching humanity and relevance of art from all eras. ‘Force Majeure’ promises to be a blockbuster.
Jesse Leroy Smith http://www.jesseleroysmith.com
Instagram – @jesseleroy66
Tremenheere Gallery https://www.tremenheere.co.uk
Sacha Craddock http://www.sachacraddock.com
Paul Becker https://paulbecker1.xhbtr.com/THEKINKINTHEARC
IMDb – La Belle et la Bête https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038348/videoplayer/vi1008515097?ref_=vp_pl