Contemporary artist Glen Smith has a passion for street art – his work can be found in Melbourne’s gritty laneways and is often identified by his signature tin or ‘brand’ of No Frills Art. But he also displays his work in more conventional art spaces such as galleries and libraries, and now Smith’s art can be seen at Boom Gallery which is currently filled to capacity with his most recent works. The provocatively titled exhibition Only dead fish go with the flow comprises over fifty paintings and prints, and is the sum of twelve month’s hard work for this Geelong based artist.
“I had no work at all when I said yes to doing the show,” Smith says. “Everyone keeps asking me if I am excited about it but I think I am more relieved. I’m pretty fussy about what I end up putting on the wall so it has been a bit stressful. It is a relief now and I’m really happy with the show.”
Smith’s paintings have a street art aesthetic created with stencils and paste-ups, as well as traditional painting techniques. He attempts to capture a street level feel in his work, inspired by the grungy city laneways and the street art adorning its walls. Smith’s works often comment on contemporary political and social issues (for example, consumerism, technological proliferation, weapons of mass destruction) and he uses humour, ironic juxtapositions and witty titles to offer new perspectives. Influences of pop culture and advertising can also be seen in his work.
“My aim for the works is to take a snapshot of the world around us now, as well as direct the audience to assess or reassess their own worlds,” he says. “Messages political in nature can be seen at times to guide the viewer, whereas at other times the work opts for a more poetic nature with somewhat subtle dialogues.”
This exhibition also displays some of Smith’s more personal works exploring matters of the heart. “In the last 12 months I’ve gone through a fair bit, from my Mum dying to a relationship break up and I think that comes out in some of the works,” Smith says. The paintings suggest resilience and perseverance in the face of life’s adversities. One such work Life is a Rodeo depicts a cowboy riding a giant sized heart. “It’s a metaphor for life. It’s about the idea that you’ve got to take it as it comes.”
Whether his work appears in the democratic space of the street or within the revered space of the gallery, Smith always strives to show the dichotomy of modern life, not just the negative aspects of human nature but also its capacity for positive change.
When he is not making art Smith works as an arts educator and is actively involved in promoting community art. He has participated in nearly 100 gallery exhibitions and his artist books have been collected by leading libraries including the State Library of Victoria. Smith also maintains a blog No Frills Art where he posts regular updates on his latest art happenings.
Glen spoke to Artin’ Geelong about his art practice.
A dozen questions for Glen Smith
How did you come up with the title ‘Only dead fish go with the flow’ for your current exhibition?
As much as I wish I could I can’t take credit for the title, it is an old unattributed quote. I first came across the quote for the title many years ago while reading the subversive, ‘How to make trouble and influence people’ by Breakdown Press. I have always liked the quote since then and although it was sadly used by Sarah Palin in her campaign in 2009, I hoped to take it back and give it a positive connection again encouraging people to think for themselves, especially over the sales pitch of a politician.
What is your background and what led you to becoming a visual artist?
I guess that there was never really a time where I can’t remember making art. I grew up in a creative household with my mother being an art teacher and very creative. My father on the other hand was heavily into music. So I was lucky enough to always be encouraged and supported to make art and embrace my creative side. In terms of my background, I started studying art at the Geelong Fine Art School, then the Gordon TAFE (just one more reason why TAFE is so important!), leading onto studying a Bachelor of Fine Art degree/Honours at RMIT.
How would you describe your work?
Physically, I tend to describe my work as influenced by urban or street art. In terms of subject matter the work investigates popular culture, making social and political observations. I do this generally through subverting the issue or by using humour to undermine it. When the work is more personal in nature, I like to attempt to capture a more poetic feel to the work by creating dialogues through juxtaposing diverse imagery.
Your work is often political. Do people react strongly to your work?
Yeah I like to think people react strongly in a positive way to my more political work. I think this happens because I tend to use humour and often side with the underdog. My work shows support for positive ideas and changes in life that people often want to see happen in the world. Very occasionally I have had people react negatively. When this has been the case it is usually because they feel that I focus too much on the negative things in life that are broken, however, I think they miss the point as I only do this because I want to see things improve.
Can you tell us about a highlight in your art career?
I guess many things over the years can be seen as highlights, however this exhibition at Boom is probably one of the biggest highlights of recent times. This exhibition has been a massive amount of work to put together over the past year, and the year was a difficult one for various personal reasons. I had no artwork left that I wanted to show when I said yes to doing the show and I am pretty happy with the amount and quality of art that I have produced. The exhibition will be my biggest exhibition physically, and the most professional, and working with the crew over at Boom has been a real pleasure. So definitely a highlight!
All artists experience challenges in their practice. Can you tell us about any you have had?
I put a fair bit of pressure on myself constantly to perform. This can take its toll. However, I feel really lucky to be where I am with my art. The most challenging thing I find these days, in terms of my art, is not having any idea where it might go tomorrow. But I have learned to largely ignore this anxiety, and have started to enjoy being lost with it.
What sort of research and or reference materials do you do use for your work?
I think as an artist you unconsciously learn to become an observer, some may say almost a voyeur. So it does not matter if I’m on a train to Melbourne, watching the news or enjoying some bad TV or movies, I am always gathering reference material consciously and subconsciously. However, I do make a point of being well informed about current events, and seek information from both mainstream and alternative media sources to gain an understanding of the biases in play. On an aesthetic level within my art, culture at street level has always garnered my attention. Walking through the lanes of Melbourne, exploring disused building, all those things people did as kids I just never gave up doing.
Have you ever made an artistic pilgrimage? If so, where did you go and why?
This might sound a bit geeky, but the show that I went to the most effort to see was actually an exhibition of books and manuscripts in the National Library in Canberra titled, ‘Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries’. The show was an amazing collection with Dead Sea Scrolls, Leonardo’s Sketchbooks, Einstein’s E=MC2 manuscript, Martin Luther King’s Dream Speech, Lord of the Ring’s cover artwork, and so much more. I also went back home from Canberra via Sydney just to see Brett Whiteley’s studio when it first opened to the public as he was a bit of a hero to me in my younger days.
If there was one piece of artwork you could have in your collection, what would it be and why?
This is such a hard one. Maybe a Warhol Soup Can, because it was a big part of the source of my No Frills Art identity and kind of sums up ‘Art’. Art itself can be precious or meaningless; that is why I generally just focus on the process of creating. Ask me this question tomorrow and it may be something completely different!
Are there any artists who have been an inspiration to you?
Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Faile, Paul Insect, Banksy, Dolk, Ricky Swallow, Patricia Piccinini – basically anyone who passionately does their art and enjoys pushing the boundaries. Artists working directly around me in both Geelong and Melbourne who are my peers are always very inspiring too.
How has your work changed over time?
I’ve changed the techniques. I’ve come up with a whole bunch of different techniques from when I started. At first a lot of my work was straight stencils and collage-type paste ups whereas now I use more printmaking techniques. This evolution has helped me getting the surfaces the way I want them to look.
Can you tell us about your studio and how you work?
My whole house is a studio. Because of the nature of my work I’m out in the shed half the time with spray paints or I might be inside cutting stencils. I’m pretty messy. The whole house is involved. Working towards this show I was doing crazy things like getting up at six in the morning and doing an hour or so outside because my work has so many layers it needs time to dry. I would then do a couple more layers in the evening. I don’t sleep much so I tend to work half the night – 2am is a normal night.