Artist in Context: Shannon Smith

The work of Sydney-based sculptor Shannon Smith stands apart from much of the trends that currently characterise contemporary art. While ceramics is having its moment in the sun, seen locally in the program of Art Month 2018, and mixed-media art increasingly becomes the norm, Smith works with as a semi-figurative artist primarily in soapstone. Smith’s work exhibits influences from modernist sculptors such as Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi, however with an increasing level of abstraction. Working from a light-filled studio in Botany, Smith is continuing to ask questions of form and material through her meditations on figure and shape.

Viewing Smith’s work, what immediately strikes the viewer is the visual textures of the sculptures. Smith has been able to harness the inherent qualities of soapstone to create works that rewards an extended engagements as new flows and connections are revealed with each viewing.

For Smith, this result comes from an appreciation of the natural characteristics of soapstone, “what I'm interested in mostly is a real sensory engagement and so what I find that means for me and my work is that I like to start with raw material.”

Smith’s process thus begins with an extended study of the stone itself, which she describes as “my first step after having selected the stone would be to begin drawing it, so I have a lot of drawings of rocks from different angles, but I find that that sort of helps you become quite analytical of what you're actually observing and then I sort of start to try and find a form from within something that already has a bit of a character.”

Unlike limestone or sandstone, which are more commonly distributed as pre-cut blocks, soapstone is sold in a rougher, unfinished form that serves to indicate its original shape. Working from this point, Smith undergoes a recursive series of examinations, “I start by complicating the form and then I simplify what I've complicated, and then I try and unify the different viewpoints of the work and then I almost repeat that process.”

Now beginning to work the stone with tools, Smith goes through a subtractive process, one that she describes as “carving on the whole is a measurement of what you can let go of.”

Within this process of letting go, however, is the revelation of the inherent form of the object which was indicated in previous stages of drawing and contemplation. Smith refers to this as the “spine” of the work.

“For me my objects or my sculptures can be real stand-ins for the figure so even when they feel quite abstracted, they still come from a place of the physical human sensory experience.”

Part of the connection between soapstone and the human figure also comes from the sensory qualities of the stone itself. Not only can soapstone be sanded to a higher finish due to its fine pore, the talc content exudes a feeling akin to working with a much softer material.

“The oilyness for me comes back to a feeling of skin,” notes Smith. “So it allows me to see the overall piece as something that has a relationship to flesh.”

While the titles of some of Smith’s work revel their connection to the human body, such as Torso of a Young Boy with a Hole to Pick Him Up By, they also hint at and communicate the avoidance of direct representation, retaining a focus on their sculptural nature. Smith’s work Holding On, selected as a finalist for the 2018 Tom Bass Prize for Figurative Sculpture, also displays this dialogue between human connection and object-focused qualities. As a construction of two carved pieces, balanced against each other, the connection to human interaction is clear, however the work simultaneously reads as a whole: a unified sculptural object.

This dialogue is suggestive of how Smith sees a fruitful iteration of her own work, “for me [it] becomes quite a successful sculpture if it sort of proposes its own question and then seeks to solve its own question.”

Previous focuses on abstraction always gave way to the suggestion of a figurative form, however, in most of Smith’s works, neither dominates.

“I think that there's something really enjoyable about seeing I guess the overlap of the geometric form with the softness or just a hint of something that feels human.”

Whether it is in the sculptural works or the drawings that Smith also includes as part of an online portfolio, “there is something that I'm constantly looking for which is the figure.”

In the search for this figure within stone, Smith has been a collaborator in recent group shows at 220 Creative Space and Gaffa Gallery, however for now is continuing her studio practice and experimenting with the construction of new forms.