A taste of silence: new works by Joel Smith

Several ideas come to mind, when seeing Joel Smith‘s works that were originally intended for his exhibition in Cayuga. Firstly – and this is an idea that Joel and I have spoke about, often – is the funeray, solemn nature of the images, that suggest something of a requiem (more on how that connects to the scenes and sentimesnt that inform the work, in a moment). The other is that, as we’re all enduring the COVID situation, and self isolate and are enaging less in public space, I remember reading a story that the canals in Venice are now clear again. This also brought to mind how, in Avengers Endgame, Steve Rogers tells Natasha Romanoff that he saw more marine life in the Hudson than ever before, hinting at that internet meme in a less sarcastic manner than usual, that ‘Thanos was right.”

Less flippantly, there’s a science fiction novel (the name and author allude me) where, in a contemporary setting, aliens appear and take stewardship, in their terms, of the Earth. Much to humanity’s chagrin (and several political leaders whom are easily recognized as having been pilfered from ‘reality’, ahem), the aliens indicate that the well being of the Earth does not necessarily mean the continuation of humanity….

This seies encompasses “several large scale black and white images, exploring the loss of The Carolinian Forest area of Southern Ontario. As development encroaches on the last scraps of a once-great woods, this is my way to preserve and bring to light this amazing and unique area before it vanishes.

Living my entire life in the Niagara Region, it has given me a chance to explore and study this unique area of Canada. There are so many plants and animals specific to this area and since most of the area is now the most densely populated area of Canada, we have to protect and capture – and preserve, both literally and in images –  what we have left. 

This is how I see the beautiful area that millions of people fail to notice each day, and I hope to introduce them to this vibrant ecosystem that is essential to Niagara.”

In some ways, this work is a strong contrast to previous images presented by Smith (such as that the Mahtay Café, which I talked about here). However, those urban scenes were almost without people, and also were snapshots of Joel’s immediate world, often taken to capture a moment. But many of those images were quite vibrant in colour (very blue skies, flat and solid like they’ve been hammered in place, or with architecture that became almost like a hard edged post painterly abstraction work). Recently, Joel has been working, if not exclusively in black and white, then in a manner where monochrome is both the default but also the intended final rendering of the images. He’s commented that this is to make the viewer more able to ‘enter’ the scene, to see the details and appreciate the larger whole of the picture, and not necessarily be seduced by a splash of colour taking the eyes away from the whole. Several of the Carolinian scenes that Smith has here, that I’ve shared, are entirely different in colour: the moss becomes vibrant, and is all you can see (and this is something that is evocative in his ‘mushroom’ works, but more on those in a moment). But this brings me back to Freidrich, whom I cited at the beginning of this: his painting Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (Cloister Cemetery in the Snow) is also muted and monochromatic, and would not work as well in colour. The subltety and softness is very grey, both literally and conceptually: just as the deep blacks in Smith’s works, and the controlled tones privilege the reflections and textures in a more appropriate manner.

Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (Cloister Cemetery in the Snow) / Klosterfriedhof im Schnee, 1819, Caspar David Friedrich.

The earlier works of Joel’s I mentioned were ‘taken’ from his everyday life, from walking or cycling around Niagara. When we spoke of the Carolinian works, and I was helping him select works to be exhibited together, we chose a selection that he related (with amusement) were all taken within about eight feet of each other, in the forest, like cinematic moment frozen in a still experience.

I’m also reminded of the large photographic works of Fiona Annis, part of her The After-Image (Swan Songs) series that I saw in person on the Prairies. Thes often dark, quietly morose vignettes were ostenibly about not solely death but also about a contemplation of endings. Her words: “I explore the swan songs of a selection of artists and intellectuals who produced final works intimately connected with their deaths.” Further: “The After-Image (Swan Songs), seeks to record echoes etched in landscape, and acts to engage the physical locations of these swan songs as a point of departure for a sustained meditation on final acts.” Annis focused upon Virginia Woolf, but I find myself returning to another British writer, T.S. Eliot, when looking either at her works or at Friedrich’s cemetery or Smith’s Carolinian Forest: I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me. Or in revisiting the silence of Smith’s works, the words of Eric Hoffer: It is loneliness that makes the loudest noise.

Fiona Annis, from The After-Image (Swan Songs).
Fiona Annis, from The After-Image (Swan Songs).

But let’s take a different turn for a moment: Smith’s practice is diverse (as demonstrated by the current pieces I’ve speaking about here in comparison to his urban scenes from several years ago). I’ve also been lucky enough to have seen a large number of his works, and thus his ‘mushroom’ works, as he refers to them, are also lovely images that take another approach to the conceptual power of landscape.

There’s a sentiment expressed in a story by Alan Moore (from his excellent run on Swamp Thing – but don’t dismiss graphic novels, as their quality of writing is as fine and diverse as any other medium). In this story arc, a character is seeking to understand about evil, and is told that “Where is evil, in all the wood?” Later, he comes to understand “that both good and evil seems connected in some way, that life itself springs from the decay of the black soil, and this connection is what the Parliament of Trees has led him to think on. In the end, thought, he still admits that he does not know what they meant exactly.” (This was articulated here, which I reference).

Smith’s works here – both the mushrooms, but also the ‘bigger’ landscapes – are also informed by the passing of his brother, and hence the solemnness of his eye, as well as the quietude of the scenes he shares with us. There is a meditative quality here, that is not so much about ‘being alone’ as being alone in this space, with your own contemplations and considerations.

There’s another author whose words flowed into my mind, in experiencing Joel’s almost haunted landscapes, and his tiny, delicate fauna on the forest floor: “I have heard the languages of apocalypse, and now I shall embrace the silence.”

Unless otherwise indicated, as with the images by Annis and Freidrich, all images are by Joel Smith, and copyright is his, with all rights reserved. You can see more of his practice at his own site, and I responded to a previous selection of his works here.