New York artist Tom Smith’s surreal artwork seems to come alive and venture off the canvas into one’s fantasies, yet it is consistently rooted in the idyllic and serene moments in nature. This almost meditative approach to his work is compelling, especially when juxtaposed with his bold, bright array of graphics, shapes, and schemes. It’s like the catch-22 of almost wanting to look away, then realizing you simply can’t. Smith was kind enough to chat with Beautiful Savage about how bearing witness to his art—rather than inventing it—fulfills him, and from where those bright color inspirations derive. And be sure to catch selections of his work in the Delusions exhibition at ROX Gallery at 86 Delancey Street, from now until October’s end.
Beautiful Savage: Hi, Tom! Tell me about your work–it’s quite amazing!
Tom Smith: Thank you for having me. I’m interested in the many filters through which we perceive our lives. Two people may experience the same thing, but process those experiences in completely different ways because of our upbringing, beliefs and opinions. I recreate this phenomenon by creating two closely related paintings on paper. I then slice them into tiny strips and alternate them on a panel. The final painting reveals itself to me as surprising overlaps and color combinations occur, so I experience my own painting through a new lens.
So not only does your work seem to play with graphics but it also plays with a surreal amount of color. How does color influence you?
TS: I am very interested in surrealism. The colors I choose for my work occur in nature during idyllic, dramatic occurrences like sunsets or even space nebula. I love toying with vibrating and melting colors and I gravitate toward candy colors that will pop next to each other. My early collages used super hero imagery, so I think a lot of those colors still show up in my paintings today.
What emotions are you trying to evoke from your audience?
TS: Ultimately I’d like to cause an emotional response that’s complex, even paradoxical. It can be dizzying to look at one of my pieces close up, there’s so much optical stimulation the colors can be jarring but also mesmerizing. People tend to back up to take it all in, and then go back in for more detail. Paradox is a powerful phenomenon. To “like” something is too simple for me, I want people to cycle through being pulled in and repelled by the work.
Do you ever just stop and think to yourself: “What am I doing here in the art world”?
TS: Sometimes I’m shocked at the scale of the art world. There are so many kinds of relationships and types of people involved in art. I’ve always known that I’m an artist, but I was a shy kid. Mostly, I was always looking for a community of people I had something in common with–that was so important to me. So I’m often surprised at how extroverted I’ve become in the art world and how many people I’ve gotten to know in New York.
What aspirations keep you creating art?
TS: I’ve really gotten into the idea that there’s a world behind my work that’s meant to be expressed through me. It’s my commitment to my art as a practice that has me expand. Sometimes I think, “It’s time to make something huge.” and that motivation happens at the service of my work, usually it’s about getting out of my comfort zone in order to learn more. My professional aspirations are sometimes ego driven. I pursue them too but when I reach those goals I’m never as fulfilled as when I’m making the work.
At the end of the day what do you want? What will make you feel like “A job well done.”?
TS: When my work takes me into territory I couldn’t foresee, that’s always a wonderful place to reflect. It’s freeing to give myself over to something I don’t fully understand. “A job well done” is staying in touch with that. When I’m more witness, rather than the inventor of my work my life is happy.