I Dream Too Much: Paintings by Leslie Smith III will be on view in the State Street Gallery from June 8 through September 1, 2013. Featuring a focused selection of the artist’s work from recent years, alongside his newest canvases, I Dream Too Much will be Leslie Smith’s first solo museum exhibition.
Leslie Smith employs abstraction to communicate stories about the human experience. A classically trained painter, he nevertheless embraces the ambiguities of a more expressionist-based practice, populating his canvases with shapes that oscillate from amorphous to representational, and meanings that hover between the indecipherable and the suggestive.
A muted brocade pattern in Speak Up (2009) serves as the backdrop to a white rounded mass at the center of the canvas. Partially overlaid by a cluster of rough circles, the loosely articulated central form can be read as a human figure, hunched before an aggressive array of microphones. Although the gauzy white paint strokes shroud the figure from a prying public, the title of the painting demands revelation. Spotlighting this conflict, Speak Up seems to point to that tense and ambiguous realm separating the private sphere from the public, the deeply personal from the readily accessible. Taken one step further, the work implicates us, as viewers. Stepping into the role of microphone-wielding interrogators, we seem to call for a response to much larger questions about the role, responsibility, and relevance of contemporary painting today.
You First (2012) probes similar territory. Although comprised only of simple shapes and painterly lines, the work, like Speak Up, flirts with recognizable figuration and narrative. In the painting, two bright-red boxy structures, each partially eclipsed by a smaller circular form and topped by a mop of black spiraling lines, float at either edge of the canvas. Trying to make sense of the imagery, we cannot help but anthropomorphize this grouping of basic shapes: boxes transform into faces, spheres becomes noses, and chaotic lines morph into curly hair. The work is neither purely abstract nor clearly representational, and it is this ambiguity that makes Smith’s paintings particularly challenging.
Just as You First dwells in the liminal space between abstraction and representation, Smith’s work, as a whole, straddles the two traditional worlds of painting: canvases that depict pictorial content versus those that test the formal properties and limitations of the medium. With deep awareness of the entrenched discourse surrounding the practice of painting, Smith builds on these art historical conversations to create obliquely narrative works strongly rooted in and relevant to contemporary life. In doing so, he seems to suggest that abstract painting today can both acknowledge its rich history, and also remain receptive to a more flexible array of methods, references, and associations.
Generous support for I Dream Too Much: Paintings by Leslie Smith III has been provided by Quarles & Brady LLP; Dan and Natalie Erdman; Dane Arts with additional funds from The Evjue Foundation, Inc., the charitable arm of The Capital Times; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers. Generous support for the exhibition catalog has been provided by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) with income generated by patents filed through WARF by UW-Madison faculty and staff.
Friday, June 7 • 6–9 pm
Gather at MMoCA on the first Friday in June to kick off the museum’s summer season. Enjoy an opening celebration for three new exhibitions: I Dream Too Much: Paintings by Leslie Smith III; Focal Points: American Photography Since 1950; and Los Grandes del Arte Moderno Mexicano. Attend a gallery talk with Leslie Smith at 6:30 pm, receive an additional 10% discount in the Museum Store throughout the evening, and take in the evening sun on MMoCA’s rooftop. Live music and refreshments from Fresco will be offered in the sculpture garden. After sunset, watch the season’s first Rooftop Cinema film. MMoCA Nights are free for museum members and $10 for non-members.
Friday, June 7 • 6:30–7 pm
A Gallery Talk with Leslie Smith III
As part of an MMoCA Nights celebration, Leslie Smith III will discuss his paintings on view in the museum’s State Street Gallery. Smith employs an abstract vocabulary of bold color and expressionist gesture to craft narratives about power relationships and the challenges and ordeals of human experience. State Street Gallery. MMoCA Nights are free for museum members and $10 for non-members.
Thursday, June 20 • 12:30–1 pm
Leah Kolb on the Paintings of Leslie Smith III
Leah Kolb, MMoCA associate curator, will examine the paintings of Leslie Smith III, highlighting the artist’s joining of abstraction with representation and the meanings that underlie his works. Smith creates boldly colored paintings using an expressionist style to convey ideas about the self and society. State Street Gallery.
Saturday, July 13 • 1–1:30 pm
Drop-in Tour: Jane Scharer on I Dream Too Much: Paintings by Leslie Smith III
Led by MMoCA’s docents, these free, 30-minute guided tours provide visitors with the tools to consider artists’ creative decisions and construct meaningful interpretations of their work. Meet in the museum lobby.