In his monumentally scaled paintings, Firth-Smith focuses on the shifting figure of the horizon which operates as both the subject and metaphorical description of his work. The horizon is a richly symbolic thing, crucially located in terms of how the world is represented and conceptualised. It is what separates us from the rest of the universe. It is from this central axis—awesome seam in the world's fabric—that the various elements of Firth-Smith's work unfold.
Exhibition Dates: 30 June – 30 July 2005
John Firth-Smith puts his viewer on the shore looking out to sea, positioned at the inter-tidal zone, on the shifting border between the familiar and the unknown, solidity and the abyss. It is here that the limit of things, succinctly described by the ebb and flow of tides, is under constant negotiation. Along with tidal movement, the horizon, apparent meeting point of sky and sea, is a conspicuous and mutable feature of the seascape. It is not a fixed thing that in itself exists. It is created by the viewer—and exists only for the viewer—relative to their line of sight as it is tangential to the retreating curve of the earth's sphere. The distance to the horizon changes according to our position of elevation. When we stand on the seashore, the edge of the earth is as close as it gets.
In his monumentally scaled paintings, Firth-Smith focuses on the shifting figure of the horizon which operates as both the subject and metaphorical description of his work. The horizon is a richly symbolic thing, crucially located in terms of how the world is represented and conceptualised. In the system of Renaissance perspective, the horizon is the line to which all things recede, eventually vanishing at infinity. In philosophy, it provides a convenient symbolic delineation of ideas and material things. In ancient cosmologies, it is the first division ordering primordial chaos into earth and sky. It is instrumental in the cycling of day and night and is a key referent in systems for locating ourselves in time and in space. It is what separates us from the rest of the universe. It is from this central axis—awesome seam in the world's fabric—that the various elements of Firth-Smith's work unfold.
Firth-Smith has it both ways, painting in the traditions of both representation and abstraction. Both modes operate in his work simultaneously. This is most evident in the way the viewer actively positions the horizon by altering the indication of their focus. It happens similarly in language with the use of demonstratives that give the speaker command of the location of 'there' and 'here'. As representation, Firth-Smith's line is 'there', in the distance, beyond a vast body of water, subtending the sky. In this aspect, the lower half of the painting is read as a horizontal plane, perpendicular to the wall on which it hangs. This is a pictorial fiction and it places the artist within the tradition of landscape painting. As abstraction, the line is 'here', close to the viewer. It is a painted line stretching from one side of the long canvas to the other, a formal device dividing the variously textured field of the painting in half. In this aspect the painted marks are read literally, empirically. The canvas and its paint are arranged vertically in front of the viewer, on the same plane as the wall. In this mode, the horizon operates as the primary axis of the modernist grid. The determination and task of how it is read, whether it is located over there or right here, is with the viewer.
Firth-Smith also orients his paintings to the vertical, the horizon transposed upright. The bisecting vertex is now abstractly iconic, indicating an overriding symmetry. It is sometimes cruciform, gesturing upwards. The vertical line points perpendicularly away from the horizon, aspiring towards the limit of the earth's atmosphere or possibly downwards, drilling towards the earth's core. The vertical bands are usually broader than the horizontal ones and are often accompanied by an overlying figure—suggestions of masts, flag poles or the more-or-less curvilinear forms of ropes, augers etc. The vertical line nevertheless still invokes the horizon in its opposition to it and is often accompanied by a series of parallel horizontal lines. These read as elevations projected on a vertical plane, like rungs of a ladder or residue left by the shifting tides on a harbour pier.
Once it is hung on a wall, a painting loses some of its identity as an object with a front, back and sides. With their large scale and disproportionate ratio of height and width, Firth-Smith's paintings are emphatically physical things. The skeletal framework of the wooden stretcher bars that support their length of linen is a conspicuous feature. While this is most apparent when viewing his work in the privileged context of the artist's studio, when things are leaning casually about the walls, the structure of long spine and branching ribs is present implicitly in the painted surface of the finished picture. The framework is like a crude and exaggerated reconstruction in wood of the painted composition. In the context of Firth-Smith's work this is not a gratuitous observation. He has for some time been interested in the concept of equivalents, the way in which like things map on to each other by association and as such can be present simultaneously in a painting. The supports of the stretcher, tidal marks, the equator and other lines of latitude, waves and octaval progressions in music are all related analogously to the figure of the horizon. A similar list may be formed for the vertical plane.
When considered as a three-dimensional thing rather than as a projected, two-dimensional illusion, the horizon in fact comprises the entire surface of the astronomical object of the earth. It is the outermost layer of the solid spherical body that is exposed to the atmosphere. Like the inter-tidal zone that initially located the viewer of Firth-Smith's work, the horizon as broad surface is another zone of exchange and negotiation. It is here that material things are shaped and eroded. Firth-Smith invests heavily in the textures of the complexly patinated surfaces of old or weathered objects in as much as they resemble his work. It is as though time and other corroding forces have been at work on his canvases, rather than an artist and his tools. He accesses the depths of the horizon as surface—the accumulation of layers through time—quite literally by rubbing it away and brings what was hidden up to meet us. A Firth-Smith painting is an archeological dig, an historic site. What was buried some time previous is restored to sight.
He takes us down through raining veils of opaque paint, through curtains of light or fog. Sometimes the surface is heavily impastoed or worked with a knife and is something solid that cannot be got beyond. Sometimes it is awash with transparent glazes and is full of ethereal light or inky darkness. Indeed his underpainting glimpsed between layers of thicker paint is bright orange like lucid sun. On finding this, we are aware that our focus has shifted, that we are no longer scrutinising the painted surface but are once again looking out towards the meeting point of sky and sea where a thin aperture of light has opened up beneath a blanket of cloud. As viewer we are implicated in the scene of reverie like the monk of Caspar David Friedrich, under the sky, subjected to the elements. Around the constant figure of the horizon, Firth-Smith invokes different times of day and suggests different atmospheric conditions: fogs, squalls, electrical storms, nocturnal reflections, morning calm, brooding skies.
John Firth-Smith is one of Australia's leading abstract painters. Over a career that spans four decades, he has been included in numerous museum exhibitions in Australia and overseas. His work is held by every major public collection in Australia as well as numerous corporate and private collections. A major monograph on his work, John Firth-Smith: A Voyage that Never Ends, written by Gavin Wilson, was published by Fine Arts Press in 1999. John Firth-Smith has been exhibiting with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery since 1988.
A fully illustrated catalogue is being published to accompany this exhibition. Available upon request.