British artist Nick Smith has a unique process. A former interior designer of 11 years, he was used to working with swatches, those thousands of colour variations each with their own name that you find in expensive design books or even as paint charts in your local DIY store. Back in 2011, a friend challenged him to make an artwork from them. He accepted and hasn’t looked back since and that’s only half the story.
Smith’s first collage experiment was to recreate Andy Warhol’s Marilyn. Some time later, he shared his work on an art forum and was invited to join a group show. It was a commercial success and that convinced him to move from design to art. His modus operandi is to take well-known images and pixelise them. For Pioneers, he has chosen examples of North American iconic works of art and design such as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks above.
He then replaces the original pixels with coloured swatches he has chosen that are close to the original. The result is a kind of impressionist version of the original artwork redesigned to a new aesthetic.
However, come up close to the works and you see that he has replaced the original names on the swatches (or colour chips as he calls them officially) with random words triggered by the shade of colour and which give the works a whole new side. It’s what Smith has termed psycolourgy, a kind of portal into his way of thinking and state of mind at the time he named them.
“All this work was done during the lockdown and is very much introspective and inward-looking,” he tells me through a face mask decorated with one of his prints. “This art is about personal associations, in-jokes, things I associate with these colours.”
So, pieces like American Gothic 100%, above, from the original work by Grant Wood, might have complementary swatch names like Hospital Paper Towel or Head and Shoulders for shades of blue, or Dog Lips for a darker shade named after his pet or Lichen for a green hue triggered by a walk in the woods. Most terms though spring from the subconscious in what Smith calls a “word soup”.
There are references to Greek mythology and Classical literature, sometimes adjoining words have a relationship, most are random. The words bear no relationship to the picture. It’s up to the viewer to make of them what they will.
The image above is based on a self-portrait by the American painter Chuck Close, a particular favourite of Smith’s and to whom he feels a certain kinship in the way he changed career. “He was a teacher who did a bit of art on the side and then became an artist who did some teaching on the side before becoming a full-time artist.”
Previous series have featured his re-workings of such icons as the Mona Lisa, Hockney’s Bigger Splash and Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, works he has chosen that can best suit his style. They have examined such themes as art theft, ethics, erotic literature and the cult of celebrity.
Smith has been fascinated with American design and popular culture since his adolescence. The Simpsons make an appearance here along with more Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. There is nothing more representative of American culture than the Coca-Cola bottle above.
The ‘psycolourgic’ textual aspect saves the works from being too much like a kind of painting by numbers. They’ve proved particularly popular with American collectors. Indeed, this show is very much geared to that market having been originally slated for New York until the pandemic restrictions intervened. I know of no other artist doing work in this way. It’s a formula that has seemingly endless possibilities.
Pioneers is showing at Rhodes Contemporary Art Gallery, 42 New Compton Street, London WC2H 8DA until 28 November 2020.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.