Artist Interview: Peter Gibson Smith

An Interview with Peter Gibson Smith

Peter Gibson Smith is not a Howick local, although he has strong connections to the area.  His uncle was Malcolm Smith, local architect, community stalwart and founding member of UXBRIDGE in 1981 – and, of course, the person after which our gallery is named.  Peter visited Malcolm often – especially in his childhood – and shares his attention to detail, inventiveness of structure and creativity.  At the end of our first full year of programming, it seemed very fitting to have Peter Gibson Smith’s new work on display.

Born in Auckland in 1961, Peter Gibson Smith graduated from Auckland’s School of Fine Arts in 1983. His practice since then has drawn from a vast frame of art historical and literary references, exploring the production and reproduction of images and various modern and older mediums.

This interview was devised by Annie Curtis, Intern at Malcolm Smith Gallery. 

We thank Peter for his time in answering the questions.

Annie: How has your work developed over the years? Is there a common theme or formal elements that you tend to focus on?

Peter: I don’t really work thematically. My work is more process driven. There are obviously themes in the work but I don’t focus on them, they emerge from the making of it. Formal elements have been pretty consistent over the years but I try to question why I might emphasis one particular thing over another each time I start something. Sometimes I end up with something similar sometimes not.

Annie: How did your experience at Elam differ from being a student and later teaching there?

Peter: Elam was exactly the same when I started teaching there, as it was when I was a student 10 years earlier. Still had the same staff in the Painting section, same buildings etc. By the time I left it was unrecognisable. As a student, Elam always seemed a bit of an outpost of difference from the rest of the University (it still is but much less so), which was really important to its identity. While teaching there, things changed and Elam was consumed by the University bureaucracy and the atmosphere became much less independent. The other big change was its scale and there was an inevitable loss of intimacy with that.

Annie: Your recent exhibition Who Can Say features sculptures constructed entirely from paper and encaustic yet seem almost pixelated in their form. How do your mediums and technique bare on your practice? Is there a tension between old and new?

Peter: As I indicated earlier, my practice is very process oriented, so mediums and techniques are inseparable from the ideas. I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily a tension between those old vs new elements because I don’t really see them in opposition to one another. They are really just two forms of the same thing… old technology (pencil and paper) and new technology (digital applications) both extensions of us that help us survive. If there is a tension, perhaps it comes from the difference between present and past? There’s definitely a physical tension in this work that comes from it appearing to have a substantial mass, but in reality is relatively flimsy and lightweight, being made of paper.

Annie: Similarly you’ve worked with egg tempera and gesso in the past, what made you want to delve into more traditional methods?

Peter: That’s a long story that started when I was a student. The short version is… I’ve never been satisfied with store bought artist’s paint from the tube etc. It’s never seemed real to me, not something you could make art with, so I decided to make my own. Of all the paints I’ve tried over the years, egg Tempera on gesso has been the best fit for my particular disposition. Having said that, I certainly don’t use it in the traditional way but the materials themselves would be recognisable to Botticelli. Encaustic has also been a bit of a revelation to me.

Annie: Your compositions seem heavily influenced by the Early Modern Period, particularly in your examination of the Three Graces and clear, balanced composition reminiscent of Renaissance frescoes. Do you think the old masters can impart something new on our experience of art today? Do they hold a particular fascination in your work?

Peter: Not really, or at least I wouldn’t express it in those terms. The past is really important and shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s always something worth discovering from past artists but the important part is “discovering” it then applying it to the present condition, otherwise it’s just high-end recycling.

My early looking at renaissance frescoes came from an interest in historical connections between art and science and how modern science wasn’t possible without humanism. Those paintings chart that shift I think.

Annie: Working in a wide variety of mediums across your oeuvre, can you say if there is one that you enjoy working with the most?

Peter: Each medium I’ve used has it’s own particular quality that I love and I continue to use most of them. At the moment though, I’m hooked on pencil and encaustic on paper. A graphite pencil is such a simple and beautiful thing and its output on paper is one of the most sensitive of art materials. For me, encaustic is the thing that binds it all together. I drive the wax into the paper with heat and that action transforms the object into a materially singular entity.

Annie: Generally speaking and within your own practice, what do you think art has to offer the world? Is your aim to make it accessible to everyone without the elitist associations it has had in the past?

Peter: Generally speaking, art is crucial for a progressive society, which is what most people want I believe. Art offers an alternative perspective, a resistance to the dehumanising effects of materialism. In short, it makes life tolerable. It’s impossible for me to say what my work offers the world in this respect but it gives me a reason to exist.

I’m all for accessibility in art but not at the expense of dumbing it down or being condescending. Visual art is already accessible merely by being visible. The problem comes with hierarchical notions attached to it eg: it’s surprising that the old idea of “oil on canvas” being superior as a form to, say “ink on paper”, still exists. Or the view that Photography is a lesser form of art to Painting being held by otherwise intelligent people. I have, at times, consciously sought to undermine those views.

Annie: Would you call yourself a ‘New Zealand Artist’ or do you think your work offers something more universally understood?

Peter: I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. I’m a New Zealand/Aotearoa artist whose work is hopefully appreciated and maybe understood by anyone.


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