The Karma Gallery has a display of paintings from Hughie Lee-Smith on display from August 3 – September 17, 2022. I was lucky enough to be able to pop in and see this quiet and lonely show. Fittingly, I was the only person in the gallery during the mid morning hours. The solitary viewing added to the quiet desperation of the works on display.
The show featured around 30-40 small to midsize paintings spread evenly throughout the two square rooms. Neatly framed, this unassuming show begs the viewer to take a closer look. It’s easy to get lost in the still atmospheres occupying the flatly painted canvases.
Each painting possesses desolate, open spaces. These are often painted in a traditional style that has been flattened and subtly compressed. Debris from semi-demolished buildings, empty parking lots with rubble strewn about, still seas and carnival like environs make up most of the settings. Despite the ravages of disrepair and neglect, there’s a beauty to the stillness of these environments.
Surviving with the empty backgrounds are similarly still figures. Reminiscent of the paintings of Balthus, the figures appear stiff and almost frozen in time. The rigid poses compliment the quiet settings and create a desolate scene for the viewer. Partially dreamlike, the breathlessness of the canvases creates a still world that feels amiss.
Hughie Lee-Smith’s paintings are immaculately painted. There’s a shrewd economy to his painting. There are no superfluous marks or tedious details to muddy the image. This efficiency helps lend to the calmness of the paintings.
Two lifeless factories make the backdrop for ‘Maypole’. A single graying cloud hangs against the impasto of the stormy blue sky. The factories are painted from De Chirico’s palette. The lighting creates dramatic, crisp autumn-like shadows across the dirt field with rocks and peaking up through the dull landscape. There’s a pole with a woman in a green dress spinning or tugging on a rope attached from the top. Instead of a rich, vivid spring setting, the desolation and emptiness of the painting lays the facts bare. This leaves interpretation open ended.
In paintings with multiple figures, there is almost no interaction between the figures and they all feel self contained and dreamlike. One of the works that stood out among the show was ‘Outing’. A painting with three figures on a dock jutting out into the sea. The sea appears calm, with an almost glasslike, reflective surface. White cliffs rise on the horizon, with another shore set even further back. The dock’s stonework is broken away. The previously hidden brick structure hints at unknowable meanings.
On the structure are some pebbles and rocks strewn amongst the three figures. The first, a man with his hands on his hips, stares out past the viewer, big sunglasses hiding his intent. Two women are in action poses, but appear permanently caught in their moment. Both clad in bathing suits, one is on foot, leaning over the edge ready to leap into the motionless sea. The other is forever watching the pebble she cast into the sea. No explanations are offered, no further context hinted at. The mellow color scheme – greyed out blues, muted pastels and soft yet crisp shadows only offer a hint towards the melancholy off season.
Lee-Smith’s repeated motifs of balloons and floating ribbons only adds to the surreal dreamscapes he painted. Raised by a strict mother, he was never able to attend any traveling carnivals, and Lee-Smith admits the ribbons and balloons unconsciously arose from this. The balloons and ribbons neither possess any energy, bounce nor fluidity, acting almost as intentionally callous brush marks on the imagined spaces. By denying the ribbons any breath of life, the solitude and bizarre stiffness adds to the inscrutable mood of the paintings.
The carnival becomes another empty setting in ‘Curtain Call’. A stage serves as the backdrop, haphazardly assembled with a drop cloth hastily hung from the front. Two curtains fill the background, flanking a series of cubist pastel arches. Closer inspection denies the viewer any sense of depth. Hughie Lee-Smith paints cracks in the wall, revealing the setup to be a drop painting. To the left of the composition is an easel with a checkerboard and target, an allusion to carnival games along the midway.
Three women in skirts stand spaced throughout the center of the composition. The women, young, with immaculate outfits casting crisp shadows don’t interact with each other, nor the background. One has her head down and back turned to the viewer, hands held behind her waist. The middle woman, black, peers out towards the audience with a slight grin, but inscrutable glasses shield her eyes from any connection. One of her arms is by her side, the other held behind her back, never revealing what she possesses. The third woman is walking off the stage, as rigid as nay figure Lee-Smith has ever painted. Her eyes are shut, adding to the image’s mystery. A silver orb, or perhaps a light fixture, perhaps a wrecking ball, dangles overhead like the sword of Damocles.
In dreams, hidden thoughts and deep desires often become attainable. Aspirational goals and desires land in our grasp. In Lee-Smith’s work, the images are inscrutable and offer no solutions. The calmness that appears in Lee-Smith’s work is not aspirational dreaming, but the breathless anxiety of being unable to understand our own worlds. The viewer is given puzzle pieces. There are no guarantees all the pieces are there. In these paintings, we feel locked away from the truth. The clues from these paintings offer quiet themes. While calm, they are often lonely. Single moments become lifetimes. The lack of answers may cause anxiety. Life doesn’t have simple solutions, and these paintings don’t offer any either. Perhaps Lee-Smith’s paintings really are things that nightmares are made of. But they are so beautiful.