Ahead of his hotly anticipated return to Lawrence Alkin Gallery, we caught up with Nick Smith in his studio to discuss the journey he’s been on since last year’s debut sell out exhibition ‘Psycolourgy’.
Over the course of an afternoon Nick kindly took some time out to explain to us the influence of classic and romantic literature in his new body of work, giving us the low down on his trip to Miami where he exhibited with the gallery, as well as quoting some Shakespeare. Read on to find out more about the themes, ideas and emotions that have gone into his Nick Smith’s latest epic show Paramour.
It’s been just over one year since your debut show with us ‘Psycolourgy’. What have the last 12 months been like for you?
Nick Smith: It’s been superb. Whereas before I had a sketchy impression of myself as an artist, it’s become a little bit more resolved. Before I felt like a designer who did art on the side and then during the ‘Psycolourgy’ stage I was an artist doing a little bit of design on the side – now I can just solely concentrate on the artwork. For much of last year I was riding in the wake of the show, in the few months after I was fulfilling orders with the editions people were asking for. A lot of the work from the first show was an edition of 3 or 5 and I had only made one or two of them, so a couple of months were spent doing that.
Commissions also began to start coming in. I was fortunate enough to be selective with those, I wasn’t going to just go ahead and do anything, saying that I’m really happy with the commissions that I’ve done.
I also did a number of print editions from the show that sold out. I’ve been very busy and my life style has changed. When I was working as a designer it was very much within office hours but now I’ve found a natural circadian personal rhythm that runs later in the day. I still work hard doing 8,10,12 hours but I can start later in the day and work into the evening. I don’t really define what I do as work, the only work I have to do is admin like vat returns and accounts. This is what I aimed to do – to become an artist and I love it. I’m still exploring this concept of pixalisation of images, I feel like I’m only at the beginning at the moment.
When did you start work on the show ‘Paramour’ and was there a transition period between the end of ‘Psycolourgy’ and the new body of work?
The idea came about before the name. I didn’t want to continue recycling other people’s images doing more masterpieces. Beyond the ones I’ve done there are only so many that are universally recognisable; I wanted to find my own content. There’s been a nice link through erotic art and how it’s presented. If you go back to the early days of dial up Internet, images would appear on the screen pixel by pixel and you would have to wait for the full representation to slowly form. I was interested in how much information you have to give to convey an image, for it to be rude out of the corner of your eye but when you look directly at it you don’t get it.
It was a personal experiment, I started to do some of this in June 2015. It was received as a bit of a ninety-degree turn from previous work. People were familiar with the way I was working and the medium but the content had evolved quite drastically in a different direction. The work sold and people were interested in it but I maybe went a bit too far. I decided to take a bit of a different approach as it’s really not about pornography or gratuitously explicit images, but about the human form. It’s not objectification; it’s a celebration. The way it connects with the dialogue that runs through it, you will see it’s not just a picture of the naked body; it goes further than that.
How did you settle on the name Paramour?
The name Paramour came about because the dialogue in the work also pertained to unconsummated love. Paramour by definition means an “Illicit lover, to engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with secretive undertones”. I also like the shape of the word and how it flows elegantly.
Does the text and name of the show allude to a relationship that is going on that isn’t apparent at first glance?
There’s the classic saying ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’. You can take this work on face value or glance through the window at the show and think that it’s just a collection of nudes, but I invite you to come in and discover that it’s layered and that there are other dimensions to it with the text. The text used in the show is the founding pillar of English romance, novels and fiction.
How did you source some of these old texts?
I started with what I knew, with the first port of call being Romeo and Juliet. It was nice to re-familiarise myself with that, not so much the story because you often get a similar structure in modern movies, but the language that was used. I was constantly surprised by all the phrases and idiosyncrasies that you get with the English language back then that we still use now. It’s almost a different language but you get a colour of what’s being said. You understand it but your eyes will skip over some of the unfamiliar words.
Through that research I found Shakespeare’s sonnets from the ‘Sequence of Youth’, there was 154 of them to choose from. Their format is almost like a haiku but slightly longer, from 120-130 words. The amount of words in the sonnets dictates the size of the image, so the word count from the pages of text told me what size the images were going to be. Then I had to workout the proportion, it’s also done wonders for my times tables, I now know that 19 times 29 is 551, I would have never known that before.
Did you have to discard texts that wouldn’t fit into the required proportions?
You find yourself having to crop the image or pull the image in tighter. There’s a process of alchemy of getting all these different factors to work together. You’ve got the image in your mind that you want to create, then the text you want to use, the amount of words, your times table, everything has to knit correctly. There will be a moment when you realise that you’ve got the right combination and then you’re able to start making it. It’s almost like the creative part is the working out before the piece is actually made. Since I first did the work for ‘Psycolourgy’ the consideration of sticking down the coloured squares has altered, now the small millimetre gaps between colours are deliberately placed. It’s not an accident whereas before it was down to chance where the gaps between squares would occur. I want it to be evident that each piece has been made by hand, that’s the way it’s intended to be.
One of the main series from ‘Paramour’ are ‘The Sonnets’, which depict 10 pairs of breasts alongside the text from your favourite love sonnets. What’s the reaction been like to your representations of the female form?
There’s nothing graphic about what I’m doing with these images. I don’t think anyone would enter the National Gallery and say that any of the nudes there were pornography. Years ago you would have extreme people going and smashing penises off marble sculptures and the like but hopefully we’ve moved on from that. I understand that for some people it can be a touchy subject but I’m fine with what I’m doing. I haven’t had any negative reaction. The work has been put in the public realm and been received really positively.
On Instagram for example it’s had huge exposure, with the nature of the app you can only view images on a small screen so you can’t see the words. People are purely judging it on face value, where as when you view any of the work close up you’ll discover a whole new dimension with the text. It’s impossible to convey the true meaning of the work without seeing it in person, so that’s why I’d say it’s so essential to come down to the gallery and see the work in situ.
Have you found a favourite Shakespeare quote?
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't”.
My granddad was a great lover of Shakespeare, we’ve still got all his books, the complete works of Shakespeare, at my uncle’s house. I think getting into Shakespeare is one of those milestones in life, I’ve pushed myself to be that little bit more cultured. It’s the same with classical music; I listen to classical music a lot now. My dad’s a concert pianist so I’ve always had that music in the background growing up. It had been more of a din in the past but now with the work that I’ve been doing I find it very peaceful and it mixes in with these beautiful verses that I’m reading, it puts me in the mood and I find myself getting lost creating the work.
You exhibited with us in Miami for art week at the end of 2015, what was that experience like?
I packed some turquoise shorts, really uncomfortable shoes and got on a plane to Miami. Fortunately I didn’t have to carry the work, as it was massive, the largest piece I’ve ever made so far, 1.6 metres squared. The piece was the last in the series of ‘The Bigger Splash’. It was difficult to make in my studio so I had to stick the paper on a wall and work onto it that way. It was a great experience in Miami meeting other artists and collectors of my work. I felt really privileged for my work to be hung alongside the likes of Banksy, Dan Baldwin and Nick Walker – art world heavyweights, especially with me being more of a newcomer.
The stand looked beautiful and the work got a lot of attention. I was really pleased that someone that lives in Beverly Hills 90210 bought the work, so it’s probably hung in a place with a swimming pool that looks like the bigger splash building. It sold on the second day for $15,000, my largest price to date, so that validated what I had been doing and the progression of my work so far. I can’t wait to go back this year, but I’m definitely going to take some comfortable shoes as you end up doing about 10 miles a day checking out the fairs.
Do you have a favourite piece from the Paramour collection?
The first one I made was ‘Capulet’s Orchard’, that is a very Rubenesque voluptuous lady. It’s been cropped really nicely, just on her hips and above her breasts. There’s a black background that seeps in on either side that extenuates her curves. That was the first one I did and is my favourite. It’s also on slightly different paper, a bit creamier, rather than white paper.
Were there any artists you were looking at when working on this show?
I was looking at the immediate fashion photography of Terry Richardson and also Richard Prince with his stolen images from Instagram. My Instagram presents images in a square format with a border, a lot of the images I like best are a Polaroid format. I’m not looking for influence; I don’t see anyone else making anything similar to me. The closest you see is painters influenced by people like Cézanne with that slightly pixelated way of painting. I wouldn’t really say it’s an influence but in the future if you had to draw some sort of art history chronology you could see that my stuff comes after that, if I was privileged enough to be uttered in the same sentence as those artists.
What do you want people to take away from the show?
If anything I’d like people to rekindle an interest in picking up a book they wouldn’t necessarily have considered, instead of going for a cotemporary best seller – to go for a best seller from four centuries ago. I’ll feel privileged for people to give up a bit of their time to look at my work. Hopefully what I’ll create next will be really different again from this. It’s going to evolve, I don’t feel pigeon holed into not continuing with nudes but I’ve got a few other ideas of what I want to work with.
Click here to view the sales catalogue.
Paramour by Nick Smith runs from 18th March - 16th April 2016. The private view will take place on Thursday 17th March from 6pm. If you'd like to attend please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.