artnet Asks: Tom Smith

Smith dabbles in mixtures of paint, tech, and eyebrow-raising video art.

Tom Smith Photo: by Elizabeth Waterman and courtesy of the artist.

Maryland native and New York transplant Tom Smith is a painter, sculptor, and video artist that experiments with the boundaries and relationships between aspects of these three media. A strong technological influence he describes as “digital output” resonates throughout, in his juxtaposition of vibrant colors seemingly ebbing and oozing over layers of collage and hand-constructed sculptural elements. Truly creative, his application of wooden gradients and sculpture under layers of pigment trick the eye into a questioning of space and light. artnet News caught up with artist days before his first painting-only show, “Heavenly Bodies,” at ROX Gallery (on view from September 18 to November 2) to hear about his experience as an emerging artist and his gender-bending video art starring his alter ego, Tammala.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I grew up knowing that that’s what I wanted to do with my life. It was always the most interesting thing to me, [even] before language.

Tom Smith, Whodunit (2014) Acrylic on panel, 20 x 20 in. Photo: courtesy of the artist and ROX Gallery.

Tom Smith, Whodunit (2014)
Acrylic on panel, 20 x 20 in.
Photo courtesy of the artist and ROX Gallery.

What can you tell us about yourself up to this point?
I actually found my way into painting through collage and drawing. I had these really great conversations with Carroll Dunham in 2008, when I was really trying to figure out why I wanted to make paintings. There are so many ways of making paintings, I was really trying to answer [the question], ‘what’s my authentic starting point for making something?’ At the time, I was collaging superhero imagery together. It was all about laying two identities together and the formal interactions of color, thinking about Josef Albers’s color studies.

Once I exhausted that exercise of combining superheroes and seeing this wonderful, magical interaction between two pictures, I started creating my own paintings and my own imagery to combine by slicing paper and gluing it back together. It had this digital quality because it looked like you were looking at something through a digital filter; there was a removal from the image. There will be some of those paintings in the show. But, once again, I had this limitation because I had this process of combining something to create this piece where I didn’t quite have control over the final image.

You had a starting point, but you didn’t quite know where you’d end up.
Yeah, I had a process to work inside of, and it enabled me to finish something without feeling self-conscious about what the picture was going to be in the end. So there was plenty of surprise. I ended up thinking about what’s the combination or interesting intersection between something being hand made and made by a human being and also looking like it’s got a digital influence. These paintings [for my upcoming show] are using painting techniques that look like they could be digital output mixed with human expression, as well. So the paintings are built that way, this kind of back and forth between the paint and its application, and also almost looking like a Photoshop filter or a Photoshop paintbrush.

Do you ever find yourself influenced by design?
It’s subconscious, but, yes, sure. That’s probably a very formal point of view about making the work. I think about it a lot more after making the paintings. I think that while I’m working, if those kinds of design questions come up, it usually means I’m over thinking. I try to dismantle that or be present to it in a way that’s not like I’m designing something to be particularly pleasing to the eye. Or making fun of that, which I think is funny.

Tom Smith, In the Flesh (2014)

Tom Smith, In the Flesh (2014)
Acrylic on panel, 20 x 20 in.
Photo courtesy of the artist and ROX Gallery.

(Catching a closer glance at In The Flesh) Wow, I didn’t notice that this was three dimensional.
This is a new process that I’ve started working in, after working in that previous process, where I was gluing wood to panel. I’m using spray paint to mimic [the look of] a colored light source shining on the work. It’s taking the illusionism a little further. I like the idea that you’re questioning the lighting in the room where you’re standing and you’re looking at the piece of art. It’s still related to the idea that you’re looking into a window onto a scene. So it’s about surface and space.

Tom Smith, Beethoven for Relaxation

Tom Smith, Beethoven for Relaxation (2013)
Plastic coated styrofoam, LED and fluorescent lights wih modified sound by Gryphon Rue
Photo courtesy of the artist and ROX Gallery.

What inspires you?
At this point, the processes inspire me the most. Besides great films, I wouldn’t say that anything in the external world really inspires me like making work [does]. It really has this snowball effect. I’ve really been committed to the process, and it’s a practice, so when I’m not in the studio for a few days, I feel this itch to be back in the process, like seeing something out in the world that makes me want to make something.

If you could own any work of modern or contemporary art, what would it be?
I really love Peter Saul’s paintings.

When not making art, what do you like to do? 
Besides TV, which is probably the most mundane answer, I travel a lot. Travel is the most inspiring thing to me. I spent some time in Iceland this summer and Brazil in January, and those places make their way into the work. Sometimes subconsciously, but mostly my work gets inspired by the landscape. I like to go to places where I feel like I can suspend knowing that I’m on earth and can imagine being on another planet. That’s a great escape for me. I’ve been making video work too, so I’ve been shooting on location in these exotic places.

Tom Smith, Boom Boom Room (2013) Acrylic and collage on panel 33 x 46.5 in. Photo: courtesy of the artist and ROX Gallery.

Tom Smith, Boom Boom Room (2013)
Acrylic and collage on panel, 33 x 46.5 in.
Photo courtesy of the artist and ROX Gallery.

Tell me about your video work.
My video works stars my drag alter ego, Tammala. I design and make clothing for her and she takes on these different, often ancient, archetypes. At the moment, the films are vignettes of her in these locations. She lip syncs to these abstracted synthesizers and pop music that has been distorted. In Brazil, she was acting as a sea siren in the Brazilian surf on the coast. In Iceland, I shot a video of her as a volcano sacrifice. That’s something I’m still working on, but it’s all fantasy. Most of my work is fantasy related.

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