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Ben Smith's Sinister Carnival

From the Georgia State Signal, October 13, 1981
By Robert McBath

 

On the day before Halloween, a masked visitor will appear at Georgia State University. Sinister perhaps, inscrutable certainly, the black-cloaked figure with his huge Napoleonic hat will peer down from bulletin boards, announcing the GSU Players' forthcoming production of Marat/Sade .

This masked man --- or is it a man? --- likely will be familiar to many, who may have seen him at Gregory's restaurant or in private collections around town: it is Masquerader , a 1970 woodblock print by Atlanta artist Ben Smith, who is permitting the players to use the image on their posters and programs for the play. Additionally, the Players will be hosting a select show of Smith's new wash drawings (lent by the Heath Gallery), as well as several large prints from local private collections. These will be displayed in the foyers of the Student Center Theatre prior to the play and during the intermissions.

Smith is one of the South's best-known artists. His works grace dozens of private and corporate collections throughout the country (including the McDonalds and the Mead Corporation's collections), and are in the permanent collections of such prestigious galleries as the Brooklyn Museum and the Israel Museum.

His work is quite popular. For example, on the opening day of a show in New Orleans in 1979, all but one of his paintings (something of a departure for the printmaker) were sold in the first hour. For over a decade, Smith has taught at Oglethorpe University and the Atlanta College of Art, and more recently at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center.

Although his work is familiar to many Atlantans, Smith the man is not. He is a witty, articulate and very private person.

"The thing is," he says with a laugh, "I'm rather a hostile interview, because I really don't want to be interviewed. I think artists should be seen and not heard --- especially after parties!"

Consequently he avoids, whenever possible, those "artsy" gatherings at which glittering, enameled society matrons crouch among the canapes, ready to pounce upon their prey, the hapless artist.

"Those small, tri-corned sandwiches have to be awfully good to excite me," Smith says. "A lot of people are so busy being artists that they never get any art done. I'd rather stay at home and work."

And yet, Smith realized that for an artist to sell, he has to promote himself.

"I don't do enough of that, and I've suffered as the result," he says. " Think that it is a dichotomy that the artist wants his name in front of the public, yet he needs, in a sense, for his work to be forward. Not himself."

Best known as a printmaker, Smith actually began as a painting major at the Atlanta College of Art, where he studied with Joel Reeves and Walt Martin. Sometime during the two years between the completion of his Bachelor of Fine Arts at Atlanta and the start of his master's work at Tulane, he became interested in printmaking.

"Suddenly I realized that I was doing prints, not paintings," he says. "Often, the unconscious decisions an artist makes are better than the conscious ones."

This change of medium also was due, in part, to his reaction to the "action painters of the sixties, spinoffs from the Pollock/Franz Kline syndrome."

But something of the freedom of expression that the painter enjoys remains in Smith's more controlled medium. "I've always been a bit rambunctious in my printmaking," Smith says, " which may account for the largeness the style." And the prints are large --- up to nine and one-half feet high in some cases.

While at Tulane, Smith experienced the life and culture of New Orleans, a city quite different from his native Atlanta. He was struck by the pageantry and color of the carnival, the processions through the streets thronged with masked celebrants, the glamorous floats of the krewes, the noise, intensity and excitement of people wildly indulging in one last unrestrained fling before the abstemiousness of Lent.

Influence of Mardi Gras

They are huge figures, some masked, some with fearsome totem-like heads, others with enormous wings or astride weird mechanical conveyances which may or may not be a part of their bodies. Mysterious, shamanistic, not necessarily benevolent but certainly not benign, printed in blacks and reds on limitless fields of white, they pass by, bound perhaps for rituals whose awesome nature we dare not even think about.

The titles of the pieces do not help us determine what is happening: "Masquerader;" "Seated Figure with Mask;" "Processional figure with mask." This is how the artist intends it.

"I purposefully give my works rather neutral names so they won't interfere with the viewer. If you tie something down too much, you have illustration."

The same thing goes for framing. There are no fancy frames or French mats to distract the eye. Unobtrusive brushed aluminum subtly holds the plexiglass in place. The huge prints are be viewed, Smith thinks, in the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The walls of the Red Room commissary there are lined with his prints, their progress suggestive of processions found on the walls of Etruscan tombs. Their digestive effect on the diners in the Red Room is not known.

After returning to painting for the past couple of years, Smith is now producing wash drawings, a major exhibition of which will be held in December in New Orleans. Why the switch? "Wash drawings are a rather interesting seque (transition) between what would be a painting impulse and a graphic or drawing impulse. I'm moving through the medium --- it's a way of keeping fresh."

Eighteen of these new drawings will be seen in the GSU Theatre during the run of Marat/Sade . Done in rich sepia tones, the figures exude a sense of madness; beings from another world, they are a perfect compliment to a play which is set in an asylum.

Why this preoccupation with masks, with grotesques? "I really don't know. It's a necessity. Being a visual artist, I shy away from over-analyzing my work. I think you can become overly self-conscious. I leave that sort of thing to art critics and art historians," he adds with a twinkle.

Although Smith is treated favorably in reviews, art critics and art historians do come in for a bit of his ribbing: "Three-quarters of the writing on art comes between the polarities of the emperor's new clothes and the princess and the peea. That takes care of both the conceptualists and minimalists!"

Aside from his art, Smith is especially interested in art students and young artists.

"I think it's a shame that people just out of graduate school immediately become teachers. I wish they had a few years to be artists before they had to support themselves."

Yet he admits that "about the only way any artist in town can make a living is to stay associated with some kind of educational institution --- if he wants to stay active in the arts, that is --- and this often interjects a note of academic politics into what the would otherwise be a simpler situation as far as the artist's relationship with the community is concerned.

"It's not just Atlanta --- it happens all over the country. Elements not central to the production of studio art affect the artist unnecessarily."

Is Atlanta a good town for art? "It's a fair town for art. I think that Atlantans up to a certain point collect local art. But after that --- that is to say a matter of dollars, probably five hundred --- they feel maybe that they're into an investment situation, so they seek something that has an established value on the New York market.

"It doesn't hurt me, since I'm a printmaker, but I think it rather frustrates some of the painters around here. It is the old 'profit in your own town' syndrome. New York is Delphi as far as the art market goes --- and the oracle is in the auction gallery."

This is a complaint heard from a number of Atlanta artists, that art as an investment often means New York prices to the average Atlanta collector. Young artists especially are frustrated by having to root about to find a gallery which will exhibit their work. But it can be done. Long-time observer of the Atlanta art scene John Ross West notes that "Often the young artist overlooks his counterpart, the young collector. A useful symbiotic relationship can happen there: many now-impressive Atlanta collections started with an early piece by Ben Smith or one of his contemporaries."

Smith agrees. "There is still a chance for students to show and sell their work, but it takes some digging. The collector rarely comes tapping at the door of the artist's garret --- you have to make yourself accessible.

"Generally speaking, though, if you've got something worth selling, someone will buy it. Few artists get rich --- but it you work at it, you can make a living, and most importantly, continue to grow as an artist."