Short Talk With Greg Smith


Kathleen Cullen: Your background had been in law and the academic side of politics before you decided to focus on art. Can you describe how that happened?

Greg Smith:  I've been engaged with a passion for beauty for as long as I can remember. Being raised by four amazing women who were professionally or by avocation involved in music, drawing and fashion, certainly shaped my life. At six I was out in the sun with artists' oil paints, black electric tape, and a brush looking to create arte povera Mondrian interpretations on canvas boards. Their absence from my attic would imply my mother's curatorial disapproval. But this passion grew and though I was talented at tennis and teaching it to raise a little money for law school, l always loved it for its beauty (Go Roger Federer!) and spirit more than the competitive aspects. In a strange way the same was true for my love of the law. I had the good fortune to have been the law clerk to The Reader's Digest throughout most of law school. Where I worked there were fine art masterpieces everywhere.  So when I first started earning money I bought a little Jean Michel Folon piece, "Le Voyage" and later saw it featured in TIME magazine. It turned out to be an allegory for the rest of my life; a voyage in art, music, law, and tennis.

Jean Michel Folon, "Le Voyage"

As to art, my affection for prints, to be honest, is because I feel that the best way to bring fine art to the most people is through fine art works on paper. While I’ve certainly worked around many people who could likely afford the paintings of the giants. They have never been a large part of my social circle and I'm much more interested in bringing the pleasure of the ownership of works of art by those same giants to the wonderful, sensitive, intelligent, and aspirational yet perhaps less well-heeled members of the public.

KC:  What were your thoughts in doing this politically oriented show at this time?

GS:  Well we live in interesting times, do we not?  In fact, it occurs to me that "May You Live in Interesting Times" was the title of the last Venice Biennale which I was able to attend on separate occasions last year. While I don’t think that the Biennale was focused on the political aspects of art, per se, there is no denying that politics and the culture wars associated with politics have a long, deep and storied place in international fine art. There was no shortage of reference points on a plethora of political subjects in Venice. As for me, I wanted to highlight some aspects of my collection that speak to the themes of politics and culture. Of course, the show is not meant to come even remotely close to an exhaustive survey, but I hope it's entertaining and a little thought provoking in this election year. I wanted to launch this now just to be part of the conversation.

KC:  In some of the pieces in the show, iconic figures include Mao, Gorbachev, and Trump. In some ways these leaders are objectified. What do you think is the artists' goal in including these figures?

GS:  I think the goal for any individual artist may be different in his or her own mind.  But the mere representation of a major political or cultural figure is, in itself, going to create a conversation in the mind of the viewer. In some cases, it seems clear to me that the full dialogue that an individual image may be seeking to subsume can be quite complicated and even to the point where the beauty, or let's say visual appeal, of a piece can sort of camouflage its broader political or cultural meaning.  It's interesting.

KC:  The show also includes the Mel Bochner piece "Kick Against The Pricks." This is done in a very different style than other work in the show. What was his original intent and in what way is the work reframed given the context of what's going on today?

GS:  This was a print that was offered by an organization called "Downtown 4 Democracy" back in 2018. The organization itself had a stated objective to encourage people to come out and vote. This work and the other works that were offered were all anti-Trump, anti-Republican, and some things that were coming out, like this work, held an implicit message of physical fury. I can't say whether this particular message had any impact on behavior but I suppose all political messaging is like that. It's throwing the spaghetti up against the intellectual wall and seeing what sticks. No one can say whether Mel Bochner's message, which is also suffused with his "Blah Blah Blah" motif, actually caused anyone to go vote one way or the other. I'm sure its theme of implied violence also might repel and counter motivate a voter or two. But regardless, the Democrats took the House of Representatives in 2018 so I guess Downtown 4 Democracy can claim some credit. I also suppose someone somewhere at some time saw some ad on Facebook that was run by some Russians in 2016 to ostensibly help Donald Trump. But of course, no one can ever say that it actually influenced anyone’s vote and to tell you the truth I have never seen even one of those ads reproduced anywhere so I don't even know whether they even happened.

Mel Bochner, "Kicking Against The Pricks"

As an art matter, I know of no one who is creating art that is embraced by the art world in general or who is even working in the art world and who is espousing a conservative message. I'm not sure that its healthy but there is no question that within the messages that emit from the art world are many positive and thought-provoking ones that deal with inclusivity, gender inequality, racial insensitivity and any other number of issues that are very healthy to consider. I've tried to deal with some of those issues in my own work.

KC:  You have also included a photograph of Shirin Neshat. In the picture she is holding a shotgun. What does this image bring to the message of the show? Do you think the context is different now than when it was created?

GS:  I think that the implications of this image have not shifted since it was created over 25 years ago. I don't believe that real progress has been made in either direction when it comes to a collective understanding in the west of the cultural history or political realities or aspirations of women in general and Muslim women of the Middle East in particular. I remember playfully chastising a Saudi man who was on a taxi line with me in Shanghai over his wife's not yet being able to drive. Somehow, I don't think he appreciated the humor but the wry smile on her face said everything.  

Shirin Neshat “Woman of Allah” series, B & W photograph with writing, 16 x 12 inches

 Maybe the meanings of this work are more layered now but the intellectual structure is an immovable object. It's easy for us to forget what actually happened in Iran, especially when no one wants to talk about it, understand how we created it, or understand how painful and unforgettable that history was.

KC:  There is diversity to the work despite the overarching theme. One aspect is the timelessness of the work despite the world's changing political climate. Can you explain why, for a collector, this type of work maintains its significance and some idea of moving forward; what to watch for in future purchases?

GS:  Well its true. I started collecting Russian nonconformist works in the 1980s and then worked on a couple of projects with Alexander Kosolapov and later moved on to work emerging from China and all along have picked up a few things pertaining to domestic politics.  In art, up until today, you see the major economic, political, and cultural geographies represented in the context of their place in history. The less visible cultures are rarely represented. A niche cultural, geographical or event driven addition to a collection is not a bad idea.  My advice is to choose what you love and what lays down a marker for you in your life. A good thing about art is that it doesn’t command a particular political point of view but contextualizes and at least permits its expression.  

As to timelessness, all I can say is that the world moves slowly. Very, very, slowly. An art collection allows you to see your life and appreciate it in the context of your visual experiences every day you walk into that special room that holds that memory. Sometimes art reminds us of what we should be thinking about when we would be otherwise occupied with the mundane. Plus it can be a lot of fun.

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