As I walked into the modern, industrial-chic exhibition space at UNSW Galleries, artist Gemma Smith welcomed me to the space that she had created. Hours before the exhibition was due to open, the entire space was polished without being pretentious, exuding muted sophistication.
Rhythm Sequence, Smith’s first career survey exhibition, showcasing a collection of her life’s work spanning 17 years. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to not only preview Smith’s works on the eve of the exhibition’s grand opening, but also to speak to Smith about what this landmark achievement means to her.
In her work since the early 2000s, Smith has drawn from her experience studying Australia and internationally to develop a style that is both expressive and decidedly abstract. From Sydney to Brisbane to Pittsburgh, Smith described her artistic journey as “instrumental.”
“After art school, I was learning all aspects of exhibition making, getting myself involved in both the production and presentation of work” she said. For her, it was the perfect way to familiarise herself with her own creative process.
The eight years she spent in Brisbane would prove to be pivotal – it was the place where Smith transitioned to full time artist status in 2005, learning crucial studio discipline. “I was working in the studio for 12 hours at a time, and loving it,” she laughed.
Moving through the exhibition space, the works themselves responded to the room they were in, and our presence as observers.
Positioned strikingly in the middle of one space, Shard (2011) is an acrylic, transparent structure with an ethereal holographic quality. As one moved around the work, colours bounced wildly off of it to create an impression of dreamy dancing colours. Situated in another area were her earlier chessboard paintings (such as Chessboard painting #2 (2007)), which featured compacted layered colours and highlighted Smith’s painting talents.
The development of her work over time is particularly fascinating to observe. “There are endless permutations of this show” Smith noted, “These works have never met each other, so having them all in the same space for the first time has been an interesting experience”.
Smith worked closely with Director of UNSW Galleries José Da Silva to produce an exhibition that is at once a free-flowing, seamless collection of concepts and unbounded creativity, showcasing Smith’s extensive talents and chameleon abilities to translate her ideas to various mediums and forms. Da Silva and Smith were thoughtful about how they wanted to portray the work and how it would all flow.
“We developed the checklist together, choosing which works to show where I thought similarities would resonate well,” said Smith, but she emphasised that curation was mostly the work of Da Silva.
“That artwork right at the entrance,” Smith told me, pointing to Deep Air (2017), “in its first incarnation, it was made in relation to a blue background.” She made ten incarnations of the work to fit the blue.
“For this show, we thought it’d be interesting to display it against a different colour.” The near-transparent work was now displayed against a rich red background, and the colours contrasted beautifully.
The dynamic nature of this work represents the crux of Smith’s work – bright, versatile and ever-changing.
Rhythm Sequence is showing now at UNSW Galleries until June 1.