Shades of Greyby Sean O'Toole / 11.09.2009
Even in a crowded lunchtime eatery like The Kitchen in Woodstock, it is hard to miss artist Richard Smith. It’s the hair. His big mop of greying curls lend this former Sunday Times political cartoonist an air of rock ‘n’ roll glamour. As we sit down at a table facing onto Sir Lowry Road, I ask Smith about his black biker jacket, its lapel pins listing famous non-American motorcycles, which makes me warm to him even before he has even said anything. Turns out he’s an enthusiast, Smith having biked into town from his home and studio in Onrus. The conversation quickly shifts to his large-scale charcoal portraits, which showcase his virtuoso hand as a draftsman and are on show at Cape Town’s iArt Gallery until September 23.
“I’ve come full circle as far as my cartooning is concerned,” he says, unavoidably rewinding the narrative back to the late 1960s. “I got famous very quickly, while I was still an art student at the Johannesburg School of Art.”
A self-confessed disciple of cartoonists Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman – “two British proponents of really gruesome, attacking political cartooning” – Smith’s youthful talents were co-opted by student editors at Wits University. A three-page “Mad magazine type expose” on Chris Barnard’s heart transplant prompted national outrage.
“Joel Mervis, editor of the Sunday Times, sent one of his reporters to find me,” explains Smith. “It was amazing. I was a student, 21, and I got six columns in the Sunday Times.”
After finishing his studies Smith moved to London, working as a freelance illustrator for magazine titles like Time Out, Punch and Oz. It was a struggle, he admits. When his wife became pregnant with his son, the pair decided to return to Johannesburg.
“I started a daily strip in the Rand Daily Mail, which was very popular,” he offers bashfully. Titled Smith and Abbott Ink, the left-leaning strip, a collaboration with David Barritt (latterly spokesperson for the Brett Kebble Art Award), opened new doors for Smith, first to the Sunday Express, later the Financial Mail.
“I was a political satirical cartoonist,” he states. “It was a very black and white world. Then along came Leadership. I was a founder member with publisher Hugh Murray and photographer David Goldblatt.”
Tasked with producing illustrations for this unashamedly highbrow magazine, Smith started to experiment with silkscreen printing, airbrushing, even photography.
“Leadership kind of introduced me to colour,” he says. “I got into painting like that.” A meeting with dealer Everard Read followed soon thereafter. For his first show at this ponies and ponytails Joburg institution, in 1986, Smith showed alongside Hillary Graham and Paul Stopforth, the latter artist famous for his 1979-80 graphite drawings of Steve Biko and his interrogators. The Read’s well-heeled audience were however unmoved by the lefties.
“Ev [Everard Read] later came to my studio and saw some abstract landscapes that I’d been doing. He said, ‘Paint like this and we can make some money’. I said, ‘Okay’. I painted those abstract expressionistic landscapes and we made money. I carried on with that for 15 years.”
Smith singles out a 1990 trip to Paris as planting the seed for his current style: large-scale portraiture overlaid with cryptic pictorial fragments. Frustrated by a series of abstracted paintings on paper, Smith tore them up. Instead of throwing away the remnants he discerned a new use for them, creating a series of collage pieces. Smith’s enthusiasm was soon extinguished when, on his return to Joburg, Mark Read, who had taken over the reins of the family business, turned his nose up at the work. So it was back to the landscapes.
“ I woke up one morning and thought I don’t want to paint another blue sky,” says Smith. “I was painting boring pictures.”
Frustrated, he returned to cartooning, in 1996, two years later chucking it all in and moving to Greece. He visited museums, studied classical sculpture, started exhibiting again (meeting with varying successes) and rediscovered his love for charcoal. Once again South Africa beckoned.
“When I came back, I did the Brett Kebble thing.” He laughs cynically about his stint as the Kebble award’s first curator. “It was like inviting heat: ‘Here I am, just burn me man.’” Which is exactly what critic Lloyd Pollack did in a punishing This Day article.
The critics were however far more rapturous about Smith’s turn as an artist, when in 2005 he showed his new drawings at Constitution Hill.
“This exhibition is brave, proving the self-belief of an artist with enough guts to redefine himself as often as he deems necessary,” wrote critic Robyn Sassen. “I was pleasantly surprised by Smith’s works,” blogged Nathaniel Stern, further commenting on the “vulnerability and raw emotional connotation” of Smith’s larger-than-life heads.
I ask how Smith achieves these works.
“When I do these big portraits, I ask my sitters to pose deadpan. I don’t want any expression at all, no teeth. I do this huge drawing of this person looking straight at me. It is really powerful – it has a lot of presence.”
This process can take anywhere up to three days, he says.
“What I then do is interfere with it, rob it of its power, take that power away by placing these things in front of it, objects which don’t necessarily have any bearing on the subject. It is quite scary: you have this beautiful drawing that has taken days, then I start attacking it.”
During all of this banter, my eye keeps returning to the red, gold and green neck chain Smith has concealed beneath a shirt, jacket and Samson-like locks of greying hair. Bored of talking about art, I ask what music he likes.
“JJ Cale, Clapton, Mozart, and OTT and Spongle and Pitch Black, all the new trance, house music. Music and art is very close, for me: colour and note. I play music, guitar. I play at a pub.”
“Do you have a moniker or do you just play as yourself?” I ask.
“I have a harmonica.”
“No, I mean a pseudonym?”
The artist-biker-musician belts out a laugh.
“Sorry, I thought you said harmonica. I play with an artist friend, Karl Bekker. We have a gig in Greytown.” He is still laughing as he narrates this fact. “It is casual. I just do it for fun, not money.”
Speaking of money, expect to pay between R20,000 and R60,000 for one his large-scale drawings.