Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

String Theory: Steve Smock turns to his engineering skills for a new body of large-scale paintings at J GO Gallery

Originally from a small Midwest town in rural Indiana, Steve Smock moved to Utah for its alluring outdoor adventure and rugged nearby mountains. An avid biker, Smock found a home in Salt Lake City’s cycling scene as a bike technician in various shops around the city. So when Smock, who had always been skilled in painting and drawing, began to devote his time to art making, it was natural that the familiar curves and turns of the machine would become his muse. Largely a self-taught artist, Smock explored realism and impressionism through his successful series of bike paintings with abstract interpretations and hyper-realistic portraits of bike parts. He also has explored other genres, from traditional landscapes and still lifes to more recent expressive abstractions; the latter led him to his current body of work and revolutionary break from any previous painting style.

Smock’s new works, which debuted at J GO Gallery in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival, range from simple sophistication to chaotic complexity depending on the number of layers and color values he chooses to work with. The series is defined by linear patterns combed across the canvas with machine-like precision, as narrow lines are spaced an equal distance apart in a definitive design. Drips and splotches of paint ride the rows to reveal the artist’s fingerprint, but even these imperfections have an eerie regularity to them such as in “Black #1” and “Black #2.” The single layer of lines in pieces like “White # 3” emulate seismic waves actively measuring tectonic activity, with the blips and drips of paint denoting shifts in the Earth’s core rather than in the artist’s hand. As the layers build, intersecting lines form moiré designs that eventually cover the canvas and, from a distance, recall the mysterious undulation of Arctic northern lights. These “Multi-colored” works have also been interpreted as carefully stitched tapestries or rippling curtains. Their oscillating effect is achieved through Smock’s carefully calculated palette of reactionary colors and meticulous painting process. The impressive scale of the work allows the viewer to get lost in powerful voids of color that trigger a visceral emotional response, while the painting’s vibrating lines control the eye and confuse the mind. Twelve pieces make up Smock’s exhibition at J GO Gallery, some with monochromatic themes like “Orange 6” and “Pink 5,” and others that play on the effects of local color like “Black #2” and “Multi-colored #10.” The artist accurately plans the optical illusions within each piece, resulting in an intriguing and mesmerizing group of paintings that J GO Gallery owner Curtis Olson refers to as a “breakthrough” and a “revelation.” Olson says of his initial impression of Smock’s new work: “I was struck by the depth, layered complexity and color combinations. The artworks seem very current and relevant to our present time. They create the space for deep interpretation and reflection.”

When it comes to his artistic process, Smock works from the ground up. His revelation for this notable new series came while he was painting a separate body of abstract paintings that expressed the blurred color movements of a Gerard Richter painting and the disjointed shapes of a Kandinsky composition. Smock was in search of the right tool to incorporate linear movement into abstract color fields when he grabbed a few wooden dowel rods to use as paintbrushes. “Like all abstract artists, at some point you take the canvas off the easel, throw it on the ground, and just start splattering paint,” says Smock. “That’s what I was doing when I started using the dowel rods and I thought, how far can I push this?”

His initial experiments were painted on large scraps of cardboard but soon expanded onto the floor of his studio, now covered in unrestrained inspiration, as he quickly realized that the bigger the scale, the more effective the design. While Smock’s ideas eventually transitioned onto a more workable surface, his process remained on the ground as he searched out the biggest canvases he could find and stapled them to his studio floor. Over the next year and a half, Smock pushed his artistic process and even engineered his own tools to make the paintings that currently hang at J GO. Beginning with dowel rods, Smock created a large wooden comb to rake a pattern of evenly spaced lines across a canvas. The wooden teeth soon began to snap and break, however, causing disjointed lines that strayed from Smock’s vision. The undeterred artist experimented with a variety of materials from bicycle spokes to Plexiglas until landing on the dependable durability of steel, which he laser cut and welded to make a new and improved version of his dowel rod comb. Even the spacing of the comb’s teeth had to be calculated in order to keep the lines of paint from bleeding together. Smock then made a customized paint tray using a volume calculator so he could easily dip his new “brushes” into an exact amount of oil-based house paint, which he uses for optimal viscosity even though it requires he use a mask and goggles to protect from toxic fumes. With his tools in place, Smock is ready to get to work.

“I start with a palette idea and direction and just go from there,” says Smock. “It’s mostly about the color relationships, but then through the process you get a lot of depth and movement.” Smock begins with a solid color or vignette as a base layer and then draws out a basic wave pattern in charcoal. The secondary lines and diamond shapes that emerge during the painting process fan out from this underlying architecture. Paint chips are used first to plan the direction of his color palette, and dry-brush practice layers inform the literal steps he’ll take so that a single stroke can move all the way across the canvas. Smock works from an aerial perspective walking on cardboard or a raised wooden platform so as not to damage preceding layers. Each stoke must be dry before adding an intersecting layer, causing the process to go on for months and contributing to the tangible texture of the finished piece.

The action-oriented process of Jackson Pollock, emotional color association of Mark Rothko, and the minimalist mark making of Cy Twombly show up as unmistakable influences for Smock, whose original inspiration for a new style came from an art-infused trip to Paris, France. “All I did was look at art for two weeks,” says Smock, who was particularly inspired by an exhibition at the Pompidou for Neo-expressionist German artist Anselm Kiefer. The massive scale of Kiefer’s paintings influenced Smock’s direction when he returned to his Utah studio, where the work continues to evolve. According to the artist, this current group of paintings is only the beginning. “I’m going to be working with these tools for a long time,” says Smock, who has ideas for exploring more depth and negative space within this style. “I think it could be endless.”

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