At the top of his game as a still life, portrait and landscape artist, Blaise Smith believes we are currently in a golden age of visual art in Ireland. His latest exhibition at Butler Gallery Kilkenny charts his development as a painter over 25 years …
Blaise you have been busy during lockdown – leading online painting courses, working on your project “Village People” and compiling work for the RHA Annual show…
I have not been as busy as I would like during lockdown. In fact, I found it hard to motivate myself to paint without a definite exhibition to have work for. I am obviously an exhibitionist at heart literally.
Last year, during the week of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, I painted a portrait of a different person from my village in Kilkenny every day. These were live-streamed from their houses – the chat and the painting process. The idea is to paint a portrait of an Irish Village – in the particular is contained the universal. In 2021 with support from Bank of Ireland we did the same again with a more blended approach – so there was a livestream and a short film of each day’s portrait, but we painted live in front of a small audience in the beautiful garden of the new Butler Gallery effectively doing portraits in the middle of the Café. It was a very nice way to spend the day, painting and drinking too much coffee and talking (too much). You can sample some of the chat and see the portraits being made on my Instagram.
I have six paintings in the 191st RHA Annual show this year [opening on September 27] – a big landscape, a double portrait and four small landscapes. I consider myself extremely privileged as an Academician to have so many paintings on show. As an elected RHA member I can bypass the extremely competitive open submission process. I spent 15 years submitting work and occasionally getting rejected so I know how hard it is to get in. However, the open submission side of the show is a great thing in the Irish art world: a selection of the best work made this year in which many of Ireland’s greatest visual artists exhibit alongside people who have submitted work and may be just starting out on a career, or even transitioning into a career as an artist.
There were over 4,000 submissions this year and there are only around 300 selected for exhibition. They are chosen by other artists who understand better than most the amount of work represented by each piece they see. Each RHA annual show I have seen over the last few years proves to me we are in a golden age of visual art in Ireland with an amazing amount of talent and creativity out there. For me the downside to this extremely high level is that I must be at the very top of my game when my work is hung alongside the very best and brightest work made this year. Fingers crossed that I am this year.
Your present exhibition at Butler Gallery Kilkenny celebrates the art of still life with a retrospective of paintings gathered from all around Ireland. When did you start this collection initially?
Some of the first paintings I did as a teenager were still life paintings. When I decided to paint professionally I did still life paintings as a kind of laboratory for painting. It is very controlled, unlike painting a landscape where the weather and light is shifting, or a portrait where the subject is shifting. So when I am not painting a landscape or doing a portrait commission, I often paint still life to relax really, and try a few things out, and get better at painting hopefully.
The paintings in this show are from 1997 to now, so nearly 25 years of painting. Anna O’Sullivan, director of the Butler has curated and hung about 40 from the initial 100 I sent her. All of these paintings are in private collections, which is a fancy way of saying people have them hanging on their kitchen wall. For example one of these collectors is my housekeeper, many others are friends from a long way back.
I haven’t seen a lot of these still life paintings in decades. This is curiously dislocating for me, as the artist who made them – it is as if they are by a different person, and I judge them as they are unpacked. It has been pleasantly surprising. With the older ones I have no real memory of how to paint like that anymore. I am somewhere else now. But it is interesting to see how the work, by this other person I kind of know, has changed and moved, and how their taste has grown more and more like my own until today it is virtually indistinguishable. But tomorrow I would do it differently.
Can you tell us about some of the 50 paintings at the exhibition in Butler Gallery?
So this exhibition charts my development as a painter from about age 29 when I finally knuckled down and started painting seriously. I mean I had won the Texaco art competition as a teen but I went to art college and that, like so many others, stopped me painting for a decade. But in the end I just really enjoyed painting – it was my happy place as a child, and I liked solving the problem of how to fill a rectangle nicely, without having to refer to anyone and with no really HUGE ambitions about it. I mean does it have to mean anything? Actually no. Actually the function of a painting is to give your mind somewhere to rest in a busy world, a contemplative space in your own home. It can mean something but that’s not actually a primary function of painting. Or Art.
To put that another way – one of the village people sitting for me said she didn’t understand abstract paintings and could I explain them to her. What did they mean? She asked. My answer is not to worry about what it means – ask yourself instead how does it make you feel – like music.
The making of a painting is also meditative for me. People pay a lot of money to do yoga but I can get into that space in about two seconds with a pencil and a piece of paper. I highly recommend drawing to anyone for this reason. Doesn’t matter if you are any good. Just take a line for a walk. Doodle. The rest of the world drops away.
So these paintings are more about colour and composition. And really they are fundamentally abstract. They happen to resolve into simple domestic objects and foods that I found in the kitchen or market, sometimes supermarket. A pile of bowls. A custard tin. A bunch of turnips. Some strawberries. Beautiful bread. Nice stuff. Art doesn’t only have to be harsh or brutal to be true. Truth is also the teapot that belonged to your mother. So this is my truth and reflects the life that I am lucky to have and some of the nice things in it.
Do you swap between portraiture and still life frequently or concentrate on one at a time?
I move between landscape paintings and still lives and portrait commissions. Sometimes a show will have an emphasis on landscapes, sometimes still life. The portraits are always tipping along in the background. I occasionally paint less formal family portraits and have been privileged to paint two paintings for the brilliant “Women on Walls” project sponsored by Accenture and run by Business to Arts, coming into contact with some of Ireland’s most brilliant minds.
I am quietly working on the early stages of the official portrait of Taoiseach Brian Cowen at the moment and the Chief Justice Frank Clarke. These are formal portraits of a role which you are hoping to flavour with personality. The yin to this yang is one of the reasons I am painting the Village People. The walls of the world are full of portraits of the great and the good – kings, popes and saints, and a lot of men from the 19th and 20th centuries. In a more civic society I think it is important to record a broad swathe of citizens for posterity, because we know that oil paintings last at least 500 years. We have lots of portraits of kings, popes and saints to prove it.
Need to Know: “The Still Life Paintings of Blaise Smith” opens on Saturday, September 18 at Butler Gallery Kilkenny and runs until Sunday, November 14. Blaise Smith will give an artist talk on Thursday, October 21 from 6.30pm – 7.30pm for more information visit www.butlergallery.ie. This weekend, Sunday September 19, Blaise will be among the line-up of Irish artists participating in the annual Car Boot Art Fair from 11am – 4pm, in which may contemporary Irish artists are selling their art at great prices; www.russborough.ie.
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