Gemma Smith by Julie Ewington

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Gemma Smith loves her paints. Not just making paintings, but the exact composition of the pigments and mediums she uses. She lays translucent films over opaque grounds, and later reverses the process, pushing paint around with an experimental purpose that is always strictly procedural, often surprisingly unpredictable. Look here: a thin lemony squiggle heads down to the right, there are persistent moody undertones, and then a lovely flash of grass green sings out to complementary coral pink at the top‑right corner. Colour and paint are one and the same thing in Smith’s hands: as painters know, each pigment behaves differently with every medium, offering an incalculable set of possible combinations. This is precisely where Smith gets to grips with painting.

This is higher play in search of expanded knowledge. Smith has pursued this particular investigation of her resolutely non‑referential painting for several years. But while her method starts systematically, Smith’s intention is to produce unforeseen results: she once said, speaking about another painting, that she could not replicate the sequence in which she had applied the colours. Here, with the tangled play of Goldens 2018, the close relationship between the yellows confounds our looking, their inherent brightness compounding the work’s ebullient challenge. And if attention is focused on the lively surface, the effect of the work is secured by the complex (and somewhat mysterious) paint layers supporting it.

This luminous painting is titled for many ‘goldens’. First there is the gorgeous array of warm yellows used to make it, then the title was bestowed on Smith’s solo exhibition at Sydney’s Sarah Cottier Gallery in October 2018. Golden things are always glorious, of course, marked out for special celebration, but here the private part of the tribute may be to Smith’s preferred paint supplier, Golden Artist Colors, Inc. These long‑standing artisanal makers produce paints of the highest quality; they are based in New Berlin, in upstate New York, and Smith discovered them when she went to the United States in 2005. Since then she has corresponded extensively with the paint technicians at Goldens, quizzing them on the composition of certain colours, and the behaviours of the paints under varying conditions. This is only the most recent of Smith’s research into colour: when she was in New York she undertook a course on colour at Parsons School of Design, and in the same year visited the famed Faber Birren Collection of Books on Color, housed at Yale University; more recently, she delved deeply into neutral greys.

Smith is always a painter, albeit sometimes on enormous surfaces, such as the ceiling of Brisbane’s Supreme Court and District Court (2012) and the entrance wall at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (2018), or in faceted sculptural volumes at Brisbane Airport Village (2010). From studio experiment to public life is a long step: Smith’s painting takes it in its stride.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Ewington, Julie. "Gemma Smith" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 330–331.

Gemma Smith appears in