Catalogue essay by Emmett Scanlon, Land Marks, RHA Ashford Gallery, Dublin 2, 16 March – 8 April 2018
“Thinking happens live”, Dorothy Smith replies. I have asked her how certain she is of what she is drawing and where on the page she is drawing it before she marks the blank white sheets with the grey-black graphite. It is a brilliantly blue December, Dublin morning. She is showing me the drawings contained in this exhibition and we are in her new studio. The studio is large. A not quite white room, but it is bright, with a pair of doors looking back to her house, through the garden, to the dozing cat. It is rather tidy for a studio because it is new I imagine, it is not yet itself, it is still in between.
“Mistakes are ok”, Dorothy continues as she shares further drawings. I am beguiled with her drawing process. It is a process that looks tightly controlled but one that Dorothy assures me is rather freely – albeit patiently – employed. What kind of pencils are used I ask? It seems it is just the ones you pare – light, common, ordinary but clearly heavy with intent and purpose once held in her right hand and lead is led to make line.
On a wall, leaning, close to the doors, there is one framed and finished pencil drawing. It is outlined in walnut, exquisite as the sun finds it. It is an explicit sign of something finished, a deadline reached. Yet it too is also something about to move, neither of the studio nor of the gallery but somewhere in between. No, no, no but how, when do you begin to draw, I ask – “I just start”.
This work begins though, well before it starts. Smith does not deliberately leave her studio or home and set out on an expedition to find the fragments, the ruins or the spaces of the built environment that clearly intrigue her and whose portraits she presents in Land Marks. Rather, she notices these things as she is doing those things, cycling here or walking there, with an entirely other destination and purpose in mind. The housing block on the Canal (Encounter)was cycled past several times before it was fully noticed and eventually drawn on paper. This kind of active, accidental awareness of the world around her, the alignment and overlap of her necessary interests or preoccupations with whatever crosses her path on any routine day, lends the work an immense temporal charge on the one hand and a compelling spatial potency on the other.
The larger drawings, made with ruled, repeated layers of black-grey lines, are clearly showing some thing at one moment in time, a year, a day, an hour in the life of the thing portrayed. Often isolated from context, the state of the thing is not always clear however, they each feel very in between. Is the thing drawn being constructed or taken apart (Capital series)? Is ithappily occupied or sadly abandoned (Encounter)? Was the thing once useful but now redundant (Port Structure)?This can, at times, make for uneasy viewing as our instinct to resolve and to be sure about things is subtly challenged. What these drawn things clearly are however are parts of our constructed world, bits of building. Very often drawings of that world feel frozen and devoid of life. Smith’s momentary drawings however, show us that in between things are in fact restless, moving and dynamic. Like all great portrait artists, Smith captures the elusive characteristics of her subjects. In the large drawings of Land Marks, she succeeds in capturing the most elusive of all because she shows us that while indeed made of rigid, hard materials buildings are not really fully static or ever immutable. While not alive like you or I, buildings most certainly do have lives, finite lives which begin and end. As buildings ‘live’, their lives overlap and intertwine with the people who build, use, occupy or simply notice them and if only for a moment or for months, such overlaps leave buildings and people forever altered.
Of course, in order to build at all, we seek to control the future use and life for the things we build. However, life does not always go according to plan. Smith, in her Other Landscapes series, draws our attention to the neglected edges, corners and resultant, awkward spaces that surround us. In these square drawings, drawings which make deliberate reference to the tradition of Western landscape painting, Dorothy Smith close-notices the unplanned or the seemingly erratic and spontaneous occupation over time of otherwise formally planned and constructed spaces as people pitch their tents, drop concrete barriers or add another piece of visually chaotic signage, perhaps intended to restore order.
A front garden (Other Landscapes – Stone Circle) is drawn close up, reminding us that nature too is an active, purposeful participant in our built world. People and plants appropriate space and not always appropriately. In each drawing, the observed tension between planned intent and unpredictable outcome is beautifully expressed somehow in each hatched and busy pencil line, worked over and under and through.
In Land Marks, by taking her time and having the wit to notice, Dorothy Smith decidedly draws for us an arrestingly radical yet utterly vital reading of the world we inhabit. By isolating constructed fragments that may or may not yet be part of some greater composite and by respecting the spaces that emerge from an often accidental gathering of peculiar companions, Smith invites us first to consider but then to accept that the built world is something that we, as humans, do indeed construct and alter but that this built world, in turn, has a profound effect on us as we occupy it. A widely acceptable truism, within architectural discourse it nevertheless remains rather unclearly demonstrated that the social and spatial lives of people and buildings are inextricably connected.
In Land Marks, in the end, one is left curious as to why, how and, critically, who has made the things drawn, where does each thing fit in to our wider social and spatial stories and to when does each thing belong. As these are much the same questions that preoccupy humans, Smith has, in this work, optimistically offered a common ground, a space between in which the interconnectedness of people and built-place can be more substantially, productively and ambitiously discussed. It is a space we should enthusiastically occupy.
Emmett Scanlon is an architect focused on the social purpose of architecture. His practice is focused on finding new ways to describe the relationship between people and their built environment through building and spatial design, drawing, research, writing, education and exhibition curation. He is co-ordinator of the MArch program at University College Dublin and Architecture Adviser to the Arts Council. In 2018 Emmett will complete the public art project Home on the Grange and participate in Engaging Places, a collaborative art and architecture project led by Create in association with Heart of Glass and in collaboration with Tate Exchange / Tate Liverpool.