Philip Smith has always seemed the oddball of the “Pictures” generation. In theory, he worked with all the right ingredients: a generic sign system of illustrations resembling those of instruction manuals, a way of painting that ironically highlights mark-making and the medium itself, and compositions that mimic diagrams, charts, and other pedagogical tools. And yet, the results always turned out a little too quirky. No matter what he tried—building up surfaces until the pigment felt like silly-putty and then gouging out generic forms, or scratching schematic imagery onto monochrome fields—every gesture toward depersonalization further accentuated an edge of weirdness. He’s like a folksy Matt Mullican, but harder to pin down.
The quirkiness, we finally came to learn, has a specific source. Smith published a memoir in 2008, Walking Through Walls, that tracks his father’s 1960s mutation from a successful interior designer to a psychic healer, astral traveler, ashram visitor, exorcist, and macrobiotic pioneer. Characters in direct contact with the realms of the dead and the extraterrestrial fill the book. As his father masters his powers, young Philip, too, becomes aware of his own, often waking up in the middle of the night hovering above his bed.
In the past couple of years, Smith has opened up his work to these astral and spiritual forces, which freed him from the need to clearly outline and organize his symbols. In his latest exhibition, at Primary in Miami, it’s clear that Smith is still working with a limited set of signs, even if it is increasingly beholden to that of occultist traditions. Untitled (Night Sky No. 2), 2022, features various outlines—spoked and swirly wheels, marked hands, medicinal plants, cellular models, and what could be divination and numerological charts—all held together by the double helix of a DNA molecule that snakes throughout the nearly eight-foot painting. Smith draws these outlines with oil pastel and then vigorously smears them. The process rhymes with his other strategies, such as grattage and inscription, but activates the paintings in a different way. The lines, embracing a vital irregularity, come alive, and the forms start to blend. Colors, spread in a range of densities, become complex structures of varying values. In Untitled (Night Sky No. 2), the blue Smith employs alludes, at once, to cyanotypes, architectural plans, and Delft pottery, while in the equally large and vibrant Untitled (Night Sky No. 1), the black background and smeared white outlines take us back to the constellated firmament suggested in its title. The ground in these new paintings, too, now picking up pigment that comes off the outlines, carries the prickly, all-over energy of static electricity.
Whatever it was that convinced Smith to align his pictorial practice to his everyday one of healing and taking dictation from the spirits, it has yielded interesting results—not because the paintings have gone New Agey, but because they have grown pictorially more complex and dynamic. They demand more of the viewer, in part because they offer so much information to digest and because the information is no longer presented in the schematic arrangements of earlier works, where an interpretation was already implied. The more Smith aligns his canvases to the stars, the more his compositions activate potentials that are anything but otherworldly. The potentials arise, instead, from a more interesting handling of material factors—pigments, surface, scale. Rather than suggesting portals to somewhere else, the paintings emanate an intense and vibrational here-and-nowness.