The rift between the aesthetic, the political and the commercial in art themes has a long history. However, the sharp divisions between those factions have steadily blurred and although the debate remains, the impact on the art community appears to have lessened. Owen Smith effectively communicates the powerful connection among the three variables, linking commerce, social and cultural meanings through illustrations for film noir posters, pulp fiction books, newspapers, murals and magazine covers.
In both style and content, Smith conveys an affinity with Depression era artists, particularly the Social Realists who were federally funded under the auspices of the WPA. One outcome of the Federal Arts Project was the breakdown of barriers between different forms of artistic expression. Like their European counterparts such as Daumier and Goya a century earlier, commercial illustration and political cartooning were stylistic sources for many of the WPA artists . . . sources they continued to use as means of reaching a broad populace.
The roots of Social Realism, an art style aimed at affecting changes in society, go back in time and have many precedents. Depression era artists, and other realists such as the early 20th century Ash Can School, were motivated to use their art as a means of affecting social justice. Overtly political and not shy from using unpleasant subjects, artists such as Ben Shahn, George Bellows, Paul Cadmus, and William Glackens, among others, reflected the inequities of their own harried times. Through a contemporary painter like Smith, similar themes reveal a surprising relevance to our present era.
Smith’s unblinking depictions of urban angst unveil the similarities. His subjects include burly laborers, gangsters, boxers, detectives, building projects, and the ever-present theme of sexy women in peril. His emphasis on garish colors, muscular figures and dramatic compositions imbue these subjects with great vibrancy, and their intensity is palpable. The tension, violence and complex relationships that rise from despairing situations are most evident in his gritty urban scenes, which form the very image of economic hardship. If these narratives are often ambiguous, his characters suffer the banes of the poor and disenfranchised.
“Combatant” channels a Goya-type social realism, bringing it up to date with an image based on Abu Ghraib. It is a cogent reminder that war and its abuses such as torture is always a prevalent subject for the socially conscious. His depiction of a crouching male nude, hooded, bound and bloodied, personifies and makes vivid the horrors of war that continue to plague society.
Reminiscent of George Bellows, boxers are another of Smith’s recurring subjects. In “The Pieta,” the beaten body of a loser is carried from the ring like a sacrificial figure. An unflinching reminder of the brutal nature of the sport, he further intensifies his fight scenes by allowing the distress of onlookers to play a prominent role.
Also like his WPA predecessors, Smith has created numerous public works, including a mural of laborers for the New York subway system. For the San Francisco Arts Commission’s “Art on Market Street Program,” he developed stylized posters of characters from Dashiell Hammett’s classic “The Maltese Falcon.” His robust interpretations of the author’s tough thugs and sultry women emphasize how fictional characters can reflect the values of the distinctive cultures and classes they represent.
Published courtesy of ArtScene ©2010