Many adolescents fantasise about escaping parental constraints and running away to the circus. That was never an option for Gregory Smart who was born into a famous circus family.
Eye Blood You
His upbringing was somewhat schizophrenic. Sent off to Bryanston public school, he returned to spend his holidays looking after baby elephants and chimpanzees at the Royal Windsor Safari Park, which had been built by his great grandfather Ronnie Smart.
He performed even after receiving his BA from Farnham, and toured with the family’s New World Circus both as a clown and junior ring master. Then in 2002 he was awarded a scholarship to study for an MA at the Prince’s Drawing School in Shoreditch, where he now works and lives. This is his debut show.
Yellow Fever, 2008
Drawing is the basis of his practice whether he is making etchings, which form a large part of this show, or paintings. Although much of his imagery appears to be abstract, his visceral serpentine shapes make oblique reference to the body. These labyrinthine coils not only suggest lymphatic systems or rivers of blood but Celtic knots and the metalwork structures of cloisonné enamel or stained glass.
His sinuous lines belie the controlled process involved in making the etching plates, and their intuitive muscularity is offset by the underlining grid, an image drawn from the sparking overhead cables that electrify fairground dodgems.
Other fairground imagery, including arcade games and machines, also informs his work, though Smart’s translation is not literal but suggested in enmeshed lines or the rows of smudged blue circles. All incidental marks are retained so his prints have the raw touch of images drawn by hand, which gives them an immediacy in this age of digital printing.
Painter on the Edge of Town Rudi II, 2009
His watercolours are disquieting. The paint is edgy and the mood uncomfortable. His colours bleed and dissolve, implying ambiguous sexual conflict. The female figures sitting on the laps of their male partners look like blow-up dolls or even dead bodies, and echo something of the erotomania of Hans Bellmer. The tone, though less explicit, is not dissimilar to that found in Marlene Dumas’s subversive paintings.
There are a number of larger oils. Blue is a favoured colour. He says it reminds him of the circus. In Self as Success the style is loose and expressionistic. A blue figure lies in a louche bacchanalian pose eating grapes.
Also on show are a number of polished etching plates and the impregnated rags used to wipe the coloured ink from those plates, which have been poked into barbed wire in a colourful display that evokes the carnivalesque.
Smart is a young artist who is still finding his aesthetic voice but with his idiosyncratic imagery, his strong sense of colour and his exotic circus background he might be one to watch.
Gregory Smart Eye Blood You at the Empire Gallery, London until 6 April 2009
Published in The Independent