Geoffrey Todd Smith is a visual artist living in Chicago. Originally from Cleveland, he graduated from the School of the Art Institute with a BFA in 1995 and headed an hour west to DeKalb to attain his MFA from Northern Illinois University. His work focuses on dense, pattern-based motifs that generate a gravitational pull. The drawings and paintings, often rendered in gel pens, gouache, and acrylic, vibrate with spatial quandaries generated by an upheaval of basic artistic components. The titles of his work directly reference personal memories and cultural soundbites.
If he is not preparing for an exhibition, curating an exhibition, or attending an exhibition, Smith is most likely instructing drawing classes at Northern Illinois University. Anobium Designer Jacob van Loon attended NIU for over a year before studying under him in 2010-11 and knew of him through fearsome hearsay perpetuated by intimidated and reverent students alike. Smith is a tall man with an unflinching candor. He delivers unguarded criticisms with cynical humor. Beginning in September of 2012, van Loon started this interview that concluded at the beginning of January 2013.
Jacob van Loon: Is establishing your work as painting or drawing a relevant decision?For a better look, click through each image.
Geoffrey Todd Smith: When I use the gel pens, I usually discuss the work as a drawing/painting hybrid. It seems relevant to me because I never really thought of myself purely as a painter. Most of my progress as an artist happened through a methodical involvement in drawing. Drawing is where most of the ideas blossomed, but I’m making some work right now that is all paint without drawn elements.
The act of remembering is distinct in most your work. That utilization of your own memory – is that nostalgia or retrospective cynicism?
Five years ago, I had what I jokingly call a “practice stroke.” I was watching a football game and all of a sudden I had a hard time identifying what I was looking at. Everything was fragmented and sort of sparkling. I went to the hospital and it turned out to be a form of a migraine. It really disturbed me that I could look at something and have a sense of it but not find clarity. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to capture a kind of energy that seems distracted and obliterated yet familiar.
Ever had another practice stroke? Do you ever try to do anything that imposes a similar altered perception?
I do have the occasional migraine that affects my vision, but nothing to that extreme. I hadn’t had one in a couple of years until this month. I notice the more chaotic and challenging the paintings become, this starts to happen. I think my brain tries to simultaneously find order and disorder, and spending forty to fifty hours a week in the studio finally gets to me.
You have a distinct style but make intentional deviations from your typical media and work surfaces. Is your intention the same whether you’re drawing on paper, the roof of a car, or a sculpture?
I approach everything I make with guarded enthusiasm. I have high hopes that I will find some fresh idea with every piece. Changing materials or surfaces almost guarantees a feeling of discovery. The collaboration I made with Ben Stone was interesting in that it wasn’t a true collaboration. In other words, we never had a real exchange of ideas. We were asked by Tyson Reeder to include a piece in a show he curated at the Green Gallery in Milwaukee called Painted. Tyson matched up sculptors and painters and had the painters work on existing sculptures. At least that’s how I understood it. I essentially “tagged” Ben’s sculpture with one of my paintings. A lot of people asked me why I didn’t paint the whole thing. Covering the whole thing would have been predictable. It would have been like decorating an Easter egg.
Does being a native of the Midwestern US have a direct bearing on your work?
If anything, suburban boredom was probably the driving force early on. I used to draw for hours and hours when I was in high school. I think it was a form of escape for me and also a way to show my personality. I was shy, and noticed when I would draw at school I always ended up with a little huddle of girls watching me draw. I would ask them what they wanted me to make and then I would usually give them the drawing when it was done. I think this has carried over to my current work. I often make paintings with somebody in mind. Sort of like secret admirer paintings but still operating within a system of my own established rules. I’m making some paintings right now where I asked a few friends what kind of GTS image they would like to see.
What are some creative advantages or setbacks you encounter as a piece is influenced by your perception of a single person, cultural references, or a memory?
Working abstractly has a limitation when it comes to specific communication. It’s like a piece of instrumental music. You can evoke different moods and emotions but it is not as direct without recognizable images or lyrics. For me, the beauty of abstraction is its ability to be elusive and still be formally charming or engaging. Also, I can express myself without the fear of illustrating my feelings. Furthermore, I can make something beautiful with a certain person or idea in mind and they might never know it. My favorite reaction is when I have made a painting with somebody in mind and they tell me they like the painting. I think it speaks to some part of communication beyond words.
Why are some of your paintings made to intentionally vibrate or have a level of visual noise that unsettles the eye?
I like finding ways to create dissonance in what is a pretty structured, systematic approach to an image. Some of my favorite music finds a way to structure chaotic noise. I feel like I’m finding the chaos in the gaps of a system.
Why is the visual order you establish in your work important to maintain?
The rigid grid and standard circle elements are conservative structural elements. They are a support to explore bold color complications, surface variation and strange rhythmic textures.
You had your third solo show at Western Exhibitions in September. How was it putting that together?
I made a serious effort to value each painting’s individuality, rather than maintain strict rules throughout the show. I wanted the show to have a lot of variation and hint at many new possibilities.
How have the relationships you have built with other artists in Chicago influenced your own progression?
It is important to be around other artists, but I don’t exchange a whole lot of studio visits. Other artists seem to enjoy that. It feels like school to me. I’d rather hang out and shoot the shit about art or other subjects. I’ve got a dirty mouth so a bar is a good place for me to have these interactions. I have always tried to see as many art shows as possible, so I meet a lot of people that way. Many of my friends and acquaintances are artists and I have different types of relationships with each of them. I’ve met some of them as my students (Matt Irie, Ryan Travis Christian, Sarah Mosk, Steve Ruiz, Ethan Gill). Others as peers (Scott Wolniak, Paul Erschen). Some relationships just happen the old-fashioned way I guess. You run into people and have common interests (Mike Rea, Jose Lerma, Paul Nudd, Ben Stone, Josue Pellot, Deb Sokolow, Heidi Norton). And I’ve also become very good friends with Scott Speh who owns Western Exhibitions because of our many similar interests. I continue to meet new artist and non-artist friends all the time. At least I think they are friends.
As you see gallery seasons come and go, how do you feel like art in Chicago has evolved as long as you have been active here? How does it weigh against other cities you’ve visited or shown in?
I think Chicago always has good artists. I honestly get sick of talking about what Chicago is or isn’t. It’s not New York. There are way fewer galleries in Chicago and way too many artists. Chicago artists talk too much about why Chicago sucks or why it has failed them. I know what I like and dislike about it, but I always suggest, if you want to be successful, you are more likely to have that success in New York. Go there so I can sleep on your couch when I visit and you can introduce me to your new friends. I love the small town vibe of Baltimore and Milwaukee. I’ve met a lot of nice people and talented folks in both places. I enjoy Los Angeles. So much to see, but I usually just look at a few galleries or a museum and try to just absorb the rest without dwelling on art.
You also had your first opportunity to curate a group show, Plant Life, at Western Exhibitions. What about the work you chose appeals to you?
That has been pretty fun. I’ve been toying around with curating a show for quite some time but I’m usually busy with my own work. Scott Speh at Western Exhibitions liked some of my loosely formed ideas for shows and said I could organize an upcoming show. I picked an eclectic group of artists whose work I have been following for a while. My eye kept drifting to flowers and plants when I started looking around. I’m a fan of each artist’s ability to make beautiful, rigorous visuals while also conveying richly compelling concepts. That has always been my view of the artists who have shown at Western Exhibitions over the years so I tried to keep that in mind.
How important is the setting? “Gallery” elicits a certain idea of art’s presentation. Bad Dog in DeKalb was one of the more affluent spaces in town, but was also a garage.
It probably varies from artist to artist but I think it is really important. Whether as an artist or organizer, you have to be aware of the effect of the space on the perception of the work and the artist’s vision. You have to be flexible and responsive when you consider a space though. I usually think a lot about how I will use a space, and when I arrive everything is different than I imagined it. It’s always more exciting to me when my expectations are transformed during installation of a show.
I know what I like and dislike about [Chicago], but…if you want to be successful, you are more likely to have that success in New York. Go there so I can sleep on your couch when I visit and you can introduce me to your new friends.
You remain in contact with some of your former students with their established art careers. As an instructor and an artist, how relevant to you is the success of your students?
Matt Irie was already a pretty solid painter when I met him, but he was one of my first students. Ryan Travis Christian, Steve Ruiz, Sarah Mosk, Ethan Gill and a bunch others have developed a lot since they were in my classes. I would never presume that I am responsible, but I hope that I helped when I could. I think of teaching as a good way to boost hard working, talented people along when you can. I try my best to give advice to people I like so they can avoid my mistakes.
I attended a healthy amount of artist lectures at NIU, and the visiting artists who were professors at other universities almost all had the sentiment of, “I’m an educator, but my students teach me something every day.” Is that total bullshit?
Yes! That is total bullshit. Very rarely do I encounter a student who is not a complete pain in the ass. It’s like fishing for Muskie. I heard a fisherman call the Muskie “the fish of 10,000 casts” because you have to be so fucking patient to find one. That’s how art students are. Most of them aren’t really interested in being an artist and have very little understanding what that even means. That’s why when somebody has a huge breakthrough it feels so good as an instructor.
Smith was busy in 2012, with two solo exhibitions and a handful of group exhibitions between three states. Currently, he is preparing new work for his next solo exhibition, as well as having curated Western Exhibition’s newest group show, Plant Life, opening February 1, 2013.