Gary Ernest Smith | Holding Ground


Ranch Hand [1989], oil, 48 x 49.,painting, southwest art.
Ranch Hand [1989], oil, 48 x

By Donald J. Hagerty

“The art of Gary Ernest Smith speaks for landscapes and cultures rarely, if ever, spoken for in contemporary American art,” writes Donald Hagerty in the new book Holding Ground: The Art of Gary Ernest Smith [1999 Northland Publishing]. The release of Holding Ground this fall coincides with the opening of a retrospective exhibition of Smith’s work at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, IN. Fields: Landscape Paintings by Gary Ernest Smith opens Saturday, October 2, with a book-signing by Hagerty and Smith and hangs through January 2, 2000. In the book excerpt that follows, Hagerty describes Smith’s attraction to rural subject matter.

The art of Gary Ernest Smith celebrates what we once had; it is a lament for vanishing places and farm-based culture, its emotional roots, and what we still have of all that, now endangered. First and foremost, Smith is a painter and sculptor of rural subjects: the quiet beauty of domesticated landscapes and the stewards of that land, farmers and ranchers. Smith goes against the grain; he paints for himself. He is not concerned with the fashionable or the desire to be “in.” He abhors stagnation and over the years has conceived of and produced, with technical skill and creative thought, several series in his work, each a departure from the others. Intersections of land, culture, and history inform his art. Like the work of poet Gary Snyder, Smith’s art says, “I am here.”

Holding Ground.,painting, southwest art.
Holding Ground

Among these topics or themes are agricultural fields scattered throughout the West and Midwest: humble yet fertile places; transformed earth where human presence is palpable but not explicit, where crops have thrived and died and await the chance to be reborn again through seasonal planting cycles. Gretel Ehrlich once mused that we should look into the earth. Smith has—through The Field Paintings, an epic series he started in the mid-1990s. Though they are drawn from places in Utah, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, Idaho, Arizona, or other locations, these paintings represent everywhere and any-where. They represent America’s imperiled places—agricultural fields—their greatest enemies concrete and asphalt and the face of development fueled by combat between expanding population and a finite expanse of land.

Human life is most harmonious when close to the soil, when there is that symbiotic relationship between nature and an agrarian way of life. The Field Paintings focus on that most precious of commodities, soil, and the seasons that shape its productivity. Though they depict that most ordinary element in the landscape, Smith endows these canvases with poetry. While literal on the surface, the paintings venture beyond their images, becoming meditations created from some mirror of Smith’s imagination. In his book The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry states that it is impossible to contemplate the life of soil without seeing it as comparable to the life of the human spirit.

The son of ranchers, Smith understands and portrays with emotion the tiller and tender of these lands: the small farmer and rancher. Through the use of sparse narrative, strong color, and heroic forms in his figure paintings, he projects the universals of individual and family values. Smith sees these paintings as symbols or icons that transcend the here and now. Furthermore, the inseparability of family in daily work lives, and how those lives fit in the crucible of the
landscape is crucial in his work.

Formal, distanced, and filtered through memories, the figure paintings capture moments of self-awareness. The figures center around the cherished and enduring symbols of the yeoman farmer, the cultivator of the soil who draws strength from the earth itself. That symbolism of timelessness, the universality of man at work with nature, and the dignity of physical labor resides in these works. With their large, bold shapes and minimal detail they explore the attitude of the rural lifestyle, the endurance, and the mystical intimacy with the soil that farming without much reliance on technology entails.

There is little doubt that the venerable traditions of rural life, as Smith celebrates them, are drawing to a close. Smith’s paintings and bronzes portray people and places belonging to a certain period of time not too far in the past but one played out against present-day reality as those images probe deeper in search of an almost existential mood.

Featured in October 1999