Fellow artist and author ROD MOSS shared his thoughts about the work with the opening night audience:
From our archive:
February 6, 2002.
Henry Smith: The land is a mirror of life’s struggle.
Review by KIERAN FINNANE.
In an age of cool, it is not often, in a gallery setting, that we encounter undisguised either expressions of wonder or of personal suffering, both of which are prominent in Henry Smith’s fist solo exhibition in Alice Springs. Opening at Araluen this Friday, Odyssey of Wonder is a show of ink and pastel drawings, a surprise in itself, as Smith arrived in Alice with a solid reputation as a sculptor, with some 20 years of freelance commissions behind him.
Like so many others, Smith fell in love with the landscape of the Centre when he first came for a visit in 1978. He was not able to return until 1997 when he took up a position in the art department at Centralian College, teaching sculpture. In his free time he began a long exploration of country and feeling, traced in these works on paper.
Again like so many others, Smith talks about the special “presence” of the landscape. He sees in it signs of “grace, struggle, survival, desperation”, parallel to the human condition.
Why the exploration led him to drawing rather than sculpture is something he can’t fully explain, but he says he can “cover more ground” with drawing, “put down more, explore more”.
“Sculpture is often two per cent inspiration, 98 per cent hard work,” says Smith.”And at a certain point you become locked into your original idea, it’s hard to change, whereas with drawing you can work through changing ideas and feelings very quickly.”
Yet most of what we’ll see in the gallery is the product of many hours’ work. In the field, Smith mostly makes thumbnail sketches and carefully annotated strip drawings. He may spend a whole day just noting how different forms in a landscape take shape as the light changes.
The large drawings are generally worked up in his living room, which serves as his studio and where I first saw the lovingly evoked “Sacred Place”, a two metre wide charcoal drawing of a valley in the Eastern MacDonnells. Smith opens this space before the viewer, as if it’s at our feet; renders its old textures in delicate detail; infuses it with light.
Interestingly, this drawing came early in the chronology of exploration. Later personal experiences, states of mind and artistic experimentation took Smith off in other directions. Two of the self-portraits show the artist full of anguish, consoled only by the land, particularly its trees. Then, it would seem, Smith emerged from this dark hour, experiencing a transfiguring wonder at nature’s strength and beauty. (It is not surprising to learn that he has practised meditation for some 20 years.)
Such experiences are profound, but are perhaps the most difficult to render with profundity: Smith’s metaphors in this phase of work are somewhat literal; they more describe his vision than enter into it. There is at least one other significant strand of his work that should be mentioned: drawings which blend a Western way of seeing the land – as elevating, awe-inspiring – with a suggested other possibility, playing with the “building blocks” of an Aboriginal visual representation – dots, and repeated lines, not symbols. This has the interesting effect in some instances of cutting the land loose, which may be where Smith is heading, having the courage to make the journey, accepting its ever-elusive goals.