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R.N. Smith is a painter who can’t stand art galleries. “I won’t sell through ’em,” says the 49-year-old artist—who, as his old cowboy boots, weathered face, and big Doc Holliday mustache might suggest, isn’t from around these parts. “I’ve had galleries, and what they know is money,” the Aberdeen, S.D., resident says in an edgy drawl. “What they don’t know is art.” So naturally Smith’s first Washington show has opened at the Ruthless Grip on U Street NW, which owner Ann Wallace adamantly denies is a gallery. “I call us an ‘art tank,’” she says. “We’re not about finished work. We’re about the process of helping artists push into new areas.”
The current show, then, is an experiment. Three-and-a-half years ago, the artist stopped painting entirely to stay home and take care of a prematurely born baby daughter. When he was ready to get back to work last January, he and Wallace hatched the idea for the current show: a documentation of Smith’s six-month journey back into his craft.
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When Smith talks about his new paintings, he often touches on geography. He says his fairly narrow palette—Smith is a skillful but muted colorist—comes from being a son of the prairies. “Think Rembrandt,” he says. “Think Brueghel. That’s the Northern palette.” And as to why almost all the paintings at the Grip are painted with acrylics, though Smith says he doesn’t much like the medium—”They were what I had on hand. I buy my stuff in Denver, which is maybe 800 miles from Aberdeen,” he shrugs. “I was between supply runs.”
But such nonchalance is not characteristic of the show: While some works are certainly stronger than others, Smith seems to have worked his paintings hard from the start. He calls the earliest works, such as Ships and Flowers, “power check” paintings: “Those are probably the two tritest subjects in art. So the challenge I set myself was, how do I get power out of [them]?” The collagelike piece is a smashing success and a catalog of Smith’s attributes: subtle use of color and tonal contrasts, a fine eye for image and silhouette, and especially, skillful manipulation of layers of paint.
That layering is also seen in later, freer works—Smith calls the most ardent of them “brain-stem stuff”—where he loosens the reins on both his technique and some personal demons, particularly those surrounding the death of a teenage daughter. In these canvases, the thick layers of paint are sometimes scraped and scratched to expose colors below. They suggest what Smith’s return to painting has meant to him. “Whether it’s a painting or the whole show, I want my work to have a range of dimensions,” he says. “What’s there, what isn’t there, what was there.”—John DeVault
R.N. Smith’s paintings are on view 5-8 p.m. Fridays and
noon-5 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays to July 7 at the Ruthless Grip, 1508 U St. NW.