palette David Smith

by Jonathan Dittman

Published in Issue No. 232 ~ September, 2016

10x8 in oil on birch ply

DAVID SMITH’S paintings depict vast, expansive spaces on a small, intimate scale. They use the chemical qualities of oil washes to disrupt, dissolve or decay the image surface. Light, space, time, weather, pollution and environmental decay play against natural elements. The works push noise against signal and create tension between the illusion of image and a physical material state.

Seemingly romantic on the surface, they speak quietly of environmental erosion, shrinking space and the state of our place in nature. The imagery may be pre- or post- man, and may also be any place and nowhere in particular. These polar opposites are at the heart of the paintings. Aiming to be open ended, evasive and spare, they play with a desire for the mysterious and the elemental.

Interview with artist, David Smith

JD: Who are you and what do you do?

DS: My name is David Smith; I’m a painter from County Mayo in Ireland. I’ve been based in Hong Kong since 2005.

JD: Why do you do what you do?

DS: Growing up in the west of Ireland, you are surrounded by shifting light and space. That has made an impression on me early on, which carried through my student days. The experience of living in Hong Kong where you suddenly deal with a lack of that space and light has focused how I paint and how I think about space.

JD: How do you work?

DS: I have worked in many different media, but in the last 8 years or so, I have focused on building a visual language of thin oil glazes on hard plywood panels. I have grown to love birch ply recently and the resistance this creates against a brush, mark or a poured wash helps to give the work a particular identity. I am looking to create a space that could be anywhere and that feels like it is transient, unfixed and fluid, almost like the image is degrading and returning to becoming its basic components. I think of the works as being elemental.

JD: What’s your background?

DS: I did my undergraduate in Galway/Mayo Institute of Technology and Sligo Institute of Technology, both in the west of Ireland. Then, I travelled to Belfast to complete an MFA. I finished that in 2003. Since then, I have done some teaching at the art schools in Galway, Limerick and most recently at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Hong Kong where I taught in the Painting and Foundation Studies departments. I have had exhibitions in the last number of years in Hong Kong and the US primarily.

JD: What has been a seminal experience?

DS: There have been many, but one I can think of is spending time painting in the deserts of Jordan where the light hardly changes. There is a particular quality to the space and light that I remember vividly in terms of colour and perceiving distance. I am always aware of oppositions in terms of a sense of time, light, space, architecture and culture that I have lived and worked in. These oppositions are very inherent in how I work and what I want from the paintings. Huge space/small scale, deliberate action/accidental result, illusion of image/physical materials. These things pull on each other and create a kind of tension that hopefully makes you want to return to the work over and over.

JD: What art do you most identify with?

DS: I relate very much to work that says something about elemental forces or our relationship to the natural world, for good or bad. My influences are pretty diverse from artists like Richard Long and Antony Gormley to painters such as Callum Innes, Elizabeth Magill and Guy Yanai.

JD: What work do you most enjoying doing?

DS: Well, I’ve played some music for most of my life, too, and I have always really enjoyed bouncing back and over from painting to playing music. This is often a fertile ground for ideas and can bring up some unexpected directions. However, seeing a painting come together in an unexpected way is hugely satisfying, and so is documenting it and giving it a title.

JD: What themes do you pursue?

DS: It has always been primarily about space and light and how our relationship to these forces change and shift. I often aim for a minimal aesthetic, inspired by ink painting, black and white photography, and the natural tendencies of pigments and mediums to flow, disrupt, change and surprise. I think a lot about environmental issues and erosion and pollution of varying types. That brings a darker edge to the work. There is also something exciting about suggesting vast spaces on a small panel, and designing it in such a way as to have more visual impact then its scale might suggest.

JD: What memorable responses have you had to your work?

DS: I particularly like “What’s with all these sad rivers?” One other that I remember, is someone saying that the work looks like it contains all the detail of a high resolution photograph from a distance, but closer, its all done in 3 brushstrokes.

JD: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

DS: “Listen to people you respect, but at the same time tell them to f*#k off in your head.”

JD: Professionally, what’s your goal?

DS: As I haven’t shown in Ireland for quite a while, I would like to develop my work there in the next few years. I have a few other projects I’d like to see come to fruition over time, too.

David Smith is an Irish artist based between Ireland and Hong Kong. He works primarily in painting and occasionally in music and photographic projects. His work has been shown in solo and group shows in Hong Kong, Ireland, the US and Europe. He has worked as a Professor of Foundation Studies and Painting at Savannah College of Art & Design in Hong Kong since 2012.

Find more of his work and additional information on David Smith at

I think a lot about environmental issues and erosion and pollution of varying types. That brings a darker edge to the work. There is also something exciting about suggesting vast spaces on a small panel, and designing it in such a way as to have more visual impact then its scale might suggest. – David Smith

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