Brian Smyth

Das Café by Brian Smyth November 5 - 15 2003

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If there is such a thing as mainstream contemporary art in Ireland, it is certain that Brian Smyth stands purposefully and authoritatively outside it. By managing to keep a firm grasp of formal conventions of painting, he has also kept a sceptical distance from vanguards and conservatives alike. His unique and unmistakable style and his stature as an artist have made him a major figure in Irish painting over the years.

Although often classified as a romanticist for his style and themes, in this latest and most finest collection of work, Brian Smyth has sought to convey his experiences during his visits to many of Europe's most distinguished café's and meeting places. By retelling and reinterpreting his encounters during his travels, Smyth has venerated the ‘café’ as an institution of lasting tradition, full of etiquette & enduring customs. Within this theme, he has insisted on according the ordinary world with a dignity once reserved for the urbane in his scrupulous awareness of ambience and in the grandiose stillness he has imposed on his figures. In his group scenes, although the relationship between the figures is apparent, their individuality and distance from each other is curiously striking. There is an almost  'polite' interaction in their interplay, emphasised by their postures and attire. In his intimate portraits of men and women, his ability to transcend the personal relationship between artist & model and involve us in this delicate and most intimate relationship with such sensitivity and grace is utterly bewildering.

Smyth's work metaphorically reflects a 'human condition', which at times can be almost impossibly heavy. The eyes of his female studies, half shut or wide open, have a manner which is reminiscent of classical Greek statues; avoiding our gaze and giving the impression that the subject is only physically, not mentally, present. The overall effect is at once archaic and modern. In addition, another striking twist is that his pictures are without dominant and secondary areas of interest. His backgrounds tend to be blatantly ornamental and instead offer a surface of equal interest as well as of even visual texture. This pictorial language he has created evolved out of a search for a style that is at once simple and subtle, while his colour sense tends to be peculiarly beautiful and haunting. In bringing these disciplines together, Brian has shaped a remarkably unique style of constructing compositions and in describing the frailty of the human psyche. The result is a series of succinct, yet complex arrangements - rich in association and spatial ambiguities.  Flat colours and rhythmical organisations with often sharp, deft compositions have produced an idiom of expressive distortions within a powerfully controlled structure and impeccable draftsmanship. The forms that the artist uses and the way in which they are assembled are deployed to convey both meaning and emotion. Thus, every aspect of his work proclaims classical systems of proportion used in plotting the main elements and divisions of his paintings. This vision runs through each oeuvre, from the visual dramas found in his portraits of pensive women to the haunting presence of his timeless group scenes. Through their uncommonness and persuasiveness, these works are both beautiful and inexplicably moving.

Brian Smyth demonstrates with such apparent ease the fact that the art and practices of the past are still relevant today. He is also an extremely rare artists who has the ability to reflect his attentiveness to beauty and allure, approaching his art like an image-struck poet, whilst transcending the conventions of archetypical portraiture.

Antoinette Sinclair

Paintings in the exhibition