Michael Smither's recent exhibition of ten oils at the Peter McLeavey Gallery, diverse as it may appear at first glance, can be seen as a statement of aims and intentions and a definition of his main areas of concern.
Smither is our most parochial painter - unfashionably and aggressively regional. He paints the world he knows: Taranaki, its landscape and people, his family and the stuff of everyday life. He is much concerned with the question of scale; and by magnifying small objects and events in his work he finds a larger life-affirming pattern and order.
Cases in point in this exhibition are Back Beach, where the beautiful order created by the relationship between the rocks and their reflections in the rock-pools are about to be shattered by a looming wave. The allegory implicit here is entirely intentional. Summer Wave is an enlargement of a pattern of foam on the beach. Abstract in its effect, it is a good example of Smither's determination to find an underlying structure and logic in nature.
In Cracker Biscuit, a perfectly ordinary cracker with cheese is blown-up and given a scale and significance at odds with its humble function. In this manner Smither creates a vocabulary of mundane imagery which enables him to document the minutiae of the domestic landscape and transform its very ordinariness into art.
The same magnifying-glass is applied to human relationships in Portrait, again a trivial object: in this case a teacup is invested with obsessive power. The magnifying-glass falters, however, in the more than slightly idealised Self Portrait. There is a considerable refinement of technique in this painting compared with the portraits he showed at McLeavey's last year. And in a sense this painting is the key to the inward-looking nature of the entire exhibition.
Social comment is never far beneath the surface of Smithers' work. In Two Women on the Beach, a painting given its dynamic by the yellow and red surf-flag in the centre, he creates a taut suspense and an air of uneasiness. The comment here goes further than the observation of these ladies' penchant for cream. cakes. Seamen Bathing has a wryly humorous quality as these aliens from the lower-decks have their swimsuit-clad genitalia eyed by a predatory sea-gull.
Hills at Tongoparutu also is loaded with comment. The sheep-eroded hills are huddled, visored presences. There is an element of personification in this painting which is also apparent in Back Beach. In Mahoenui Hills, Smither is defining the northernmost edge of his territory - the Awakino Gorge. Perhaps the most successful work in this exhibition is From Paritutu Road - a view of houses with their windows lit on the outskirts of New Plymouth on a tranquil summer's evening. The landscape is condensed to include Egmont and the intervening hills. In this painting Smither has captured the quality of the evening light and the character of the town. It is bursting with the warmth and humanity which underlie all of Michael Smither's work.