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Conversation with Dean Smith
by Bruno Fazzolari

In the mid 1990s, Dean Smith left behind a painting practice that was largely material-based to create large-scale graphite drawings. Retaining the emphasis on process, he shifted his focus from manipulating material to manipulating the operations of drawing. Deploying fields of meticulous and precise mark-making to create a variety of forms, the work evokes a range of associations, from strange hybrids of obscure scientific data charts to ecstatic tantric painting and/or computer models for some sort of possibly harmful alien product line. Over the years, Smith's work has charted a trajectory of increasing conceptual and visual complexity by exploring and often undermining the nature of these forms and their interrelationship with the marks that create them.

The word "abstract" is a very loose descriptor for Smith's work, and the lack of a term to put a finer point on what type of abstraction it is only highlights the fact that the critical dialogue surrounding abstract and non-objective art has failed to keep pace with the ever diversifying complexity of the enterprises it considers. Smith participates in abstraction in a very specific way, and he does so by navigating the complex terrain for how images are understood on a cognitive level by viewers. I spoke with him in his West Oakland studio about his inspirations, sources, and process. We also discussed his friendship with Bruce Conner, for whom he worked in the last years of Conner's life.

Bruno Fazzolari: Your drawings sometimes recall diagrams, maps or structural models. Do you look at those things?

Dean Smith: Well, scientific illustration has always interested me in a very broad way. I'm interested in everything-from representations of exotic animals and plants to depictions of cosmological phenomena. But I'm most interested in images made prior to the mid-nineteenth century. There's often a crude quality to the way the information was translated into visual form. Maybe crude isn't the right word, but the decisions weren't informed by an extensive body of scientific knowledge or even a systematic approach to image making. The visual language of the infographic hadn't been invented yet. Artists and scientists tried to describe phenomena with the utmost fidelity-objectively-but there was more room for subjectivity to enter into the process of representation.

BF: The terms and tropes of that objectivity hadn't been codified yet.

DS: Exactly. Previously, people only had their eyes and their hands to describe this stuff. Today, we have so many imaging devices: cameras and telescopes and computers to create charts and tables. They have come to define our ways of representing and conceptualizing our experience, especially when we want it represented "objectively." We look at an image of a planet from the Hubble Space Telescope and we tend to think it's an accurate representation of that planet, when in fact, that's not necessarily true. But we take that image as more objective than somebody looking through a telescope and doing a little sketch.

BF: We tend to forget that a photograph is a fragment. But a picture of a planet doesn't really convey much information, whereas a drawing or chart can communicate something about its movements or other factors. It's interesting to think about how charts have a visual language that is culturally determined. For instance, the standard calendar where a month is represented as a grid of squares essentially represents time spatially. We conceive of ourselves in relation to time almost as though we were moving along a map. But in the shift from today to tomorrow, we don't "go" anywhere.

focusing 3
focusing #3, 2008; graphite on paper; 25.5 x 20 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Don Felton.

DS: Basically, you're abstracting at that point. You're taking a lot of information and synthesizing it and changing the context of that information, presenting it visually when maybe it wasn't visual to begin with-for instance, depicting quantities and numerical values as bars and/or curves. That kind of translation is what interests me and in particular, the possibilities for what can arise in the gaps that open up at various stages in the process.

[Entire interview available here:]
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