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Interview with Wendy Smith by Ben Gooding
It is true that coordinates could be fed into a computer and similar images to my
original drawings could be produced -
One could say that ‘surface’ is the object of my inquiry; this comprises the material
surface on which I draw (or paint) but also the more mysterious abstraction of an
immaterial ‘something’ which has a given area and position but no volume. The picture
plane would be a case in point: the picture plane is essentially two-
BG You recently visited Japan, which has long held a particular fascination for you. It’s a culture striking in its obsessive adherence to ritual and ceremony. Is there a parallel here to the way you operate as an artist? You spoke in particular about your experience of Japanese Buddhist calligraphy and the fact that one strives to copy a mark that is not about the individual. Does this relate to your own work with pen and ruler?
WS My abiding impression of Japan is just how intensely Japanese Japan actually
is. I am not particularly well-
My first brush with Japanese art must have been when I was a second-
Japanese art was a revelation for me in several ways. First, brush and ink had an
honourable place in the scheme of things. I liked very much the way shades of ink,
more or less diluted, were applied to suggest varying intensities of colour, depth
and/or distance. I was particularly taken with the relationship between calligraphy
Second, the spatial organization was quite different to that of the Western tradition.
There were no fixed vanishing or viewing points in traditional Japanese art, and
the picture plane seemed able to accommodate ‘here and now-
Third, I loved the way narratives could be continuous over discontinuous surfaces,
whether they were large-
I should perhaps make clear at this juncture that I was not looking to model my own practice on Japanese art, even though I recognise, in all my work, elements that have their origin in this early enthusiasm. At that time, however, I would have counted myself a modernist, and if anything, I was looking to put to one side what I understood about tradition. In that regard, and however incongruous it might now seem to an outsider, the other big influence on my creative development at this point was Dada.
You can perhaps deduce from what I’ve already said that I am uneasy about the coupling
of ‘obsessive adherence’ and ‘ritual’. There is of course no necessary connection,
unless one has in mind the kind of repetitive behaviour associated with obsessive-
Shakyō is the practice of sutra-
As one painstakingly traces the characters of the sutra, one could scarcely be more
aware that this is not an exercise in self-
As far as I am concerned, creativity does not entail imposing my will on this surface.
For me, drawing is not the means by which ideas are transcribed into visual terms.
It is not about the ‘realisation of my intentions’, beyond devising an appropriate
methodology, and ascertaining which moves on my part the surface then invites me
to make. Having said that, (this) drawing is my response to an urge to mark the surface,
to make contact with the world directly and immediately and in such a way that the
mutual impact is plain to see. I do what I do out of an awareness of my being in
the world. My use of pen and straightedge is not some sort of attempt to deny my
part in proceedings, to eliminate my own hand in it, as it were -
BG There might be said to be a certain anonymity to a ruled line, a disappearance of the ‘hand of the artist’. Yet you would not be happy for an assistant to follow a set of instructions in order to produce one of your drawings. Sol LeWitt famously used assistants to install ‘his’ wall drawings, often never even seeing them. But for you there seems to be this connectedness to ‘your’ lines. Is there some ontological quality here that precedes purely aesthetic concerns?
WS I guess I have already answered this question in part, but perhaps some amplification might be useful. The point is not whether it’s my handwriting, Sol LeWitt’s, or that of his ‘assistants’, in respect of the image, but artists arrive at imagery in all kinds of ways and for different ends. I certainly subscribe to the idea that it matters less who does the ‘doing’ than that whatever needs to be done is done. However, it is one thing to acknowledge that it doesn’t matter whose hand is involved, it is quite another to make a song and dance about whether or not it’s the artist’s hand. We might then consider whether what is being said is that there is nothing special about the artist, (s)he is just trying to make her/his way in the world like everyone else: potentially, anyone might be an artist (which would be my
position). Or, contrariwise, it is the artist’s conception (of the image) that is
I have no problem at all with the idea of issuing a set of instructions for the production
of a piece of work. The glass panels Arena and Tower are examples -
I do not make wall drawings and, by and large, I do not work to commission. But suppose
I were to say, “I make all my original drawings on walls some 2.5 x 1.5 metres in
area, with a view to having them scaled down and re-
I happen not to make wall drawings because it is easier and more direct to draw on
suggesting that drawings and/or paintings of a different kind could not be made directly
onto walls -
There is, as you say, a (necessary) connection between line (which, incidentally,
I do not regard as ‘mine’) and drawer. Perhaps the first thing one learns in drawing
a line is just how physical the relationship is, both between the artist -
A line is not a stripe. There is only one path for each and every line to take. The
line is not merely a graphic entity it is dynamic, it is a moving force. In mathematical
terms a line is ‘a straight or curved continuous trace having no breadth, that is
produced by a moving point . . . A line is any straight, one-
I finally tracked down the quotation from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that I was trying to call to mind when you visited the studio, it seems apt here:
“Precision instruments are designed to achieve an idea, dimensional precision, whose perfection is impossible. There is no perfectly shaped part of the motorcycle and never will be, but when you come as close as these instruments take you, remarkable things happen, and you go flying across the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way. It’s the understanding of this rational intellectual idea that’s fundamental. John looks at the motorcycle and sees steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts.”
BG Drawing, as an act, is one of those things that seem to define us as a species and is something that we as children intuitively take up. But most people, when questioned, would claim they "can't draw". Do you think that people's conception of what it is to draw has become constrained by what one might call technical or ‘academic’ drawing? Is the value we seem to place on such proficiency archaic or is it a necessary part of an artistic education? And how does your own drawing practice relate to such traditions?
Years ago, the small daughter of a friend, quite out of the blue, asked me two questions
that completely floored me at the time, which I never forgot, and which I can no
more satisfactorily answer now than I could then. I hadn’t noticed that Catherine,
no doubt bored by the conversation between her mother and me, had been whiling away
the time by looking at a couple of pictures on the wall. Suddenly she piped up: “How
do you get your drawings to be so 3-
What was surprising about the first question was that Catherine could see and understand
more clearly what she was looking at than could many adults, including fellow artists,
at the time. She did not see the drawings as minimalist, neo-
I could perhaps have explained to Catherine how I’d actually made the drawings but
not how or why she was able to see them as pictures or, if you like, what they are
drawings ‘of’, particularly since there are no outlines in the drawings that appeared
to her to be “so 3-
It seems to me that a good deal of thinking about ‘pictures’ and ‘picturing’ is seriously
BG You also spoke about how what you do is not fundamentally a commercial activity. It seems to be driven by an absolute fascination on your part with the activity itself. Do you think this is the only real approach to making art? Once you bring money in as a concern, one loses authenticity? Obviously artists have to make a living, so how do you retain such an unclouded sense of why you do what you do? And do you think the inflated value of contemporary art over the last few decades has had a detrimental effect on the mindset of subsequent generations of artists coming into the ‘industry’?
WS I’m going to sidestep this one as deftly as may be, by recalling that Walter
Scott famously wrote his way out of many a tight financial corner. To be honest,
I’d rather not admit to having worried about money, or the lack of it, as much as
I have at times. What I can say is that I have found (relatively) straitened circumstances
to be less inimical to creativity than anxiety. Although I need to sell drawings
Avalanche (phase 3) pen and ink on paper
Shudder pen and ink on paper
Verso/Recto VI pen and ink on board
Heart Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom copy on rice paper (WS)
Screen Memory pen and ink on board
Light of Day IV pen and ink on board
The Wind Carpet pen and ink on board
Tower (detail) 4-
Screen Grid pen and ink on paper
Location Revisited pen and ink on board
St Lucy’s Day (drawing 10 of a series of 10) pen and ink on board
WS It is true, at a fairly young age most children draw as if their lives depend
on it and I would say that that is probably why, though in ways not altogether understood.
It’s also true that, later, most people would say not only that they can’t draw,
but that they couldn’t draw a straight line, even! It seems to me that children experience
exactly the same impulse to mark surfaces that I mentioned earlier: they draw on
paper, of course, but also cupboard doors, floors, walls, curtains, sand, the dog
In making drawings, I am not intent on expressing myself or communicating with anyone
else. I do not mean to be provocative here; what I am trying to convey is that I
proceed from a position of not knowing. My aim is to discover what, if anything,
might be of interest to me (other than me). Given what I’ve already said about there
being nothing special about the artist, it would follow that what might fascinate
me might be of interest to others also. None of my drawings derives directly from
any visual, or for that matter any other, kind of personal experience. The convention
is that representational drawings and paintings depict, or at least make reference
to, objects in the material world of day-
©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock All rights reserved.
There are many things one can admire about the work of Wendy Smith, but the initial
impact is one of astonishment that such objects can be handmade in the first place.
Of course, they actually can't be made any other way, yet so meticulous and exacting
are these drawings that they can become mesmerising. The process by which such complex
and alluring forms emerge is as fascinating as the elegance of the forms themselves.
A grid will be measured and drawn out by hand, from which the artist builds up successive
layers of linear movements that describe a spatial exploration of the picture plane.
They become objects in space, suspended in this non-
For Smith, the drawn line is the fundamental act. It is an actual means of thinking, not merely a means of transcribing ideas into visual forms. There is something I find quite profound in this, and when looking at the work one is keenly aware of the artist's absolute fascination with line, and under the calm, serene surface of each work is an intense investigation into a seemingly endless landscape of possibility.
BG It’s interesting that every mark you make is by hand, including the grids from
which you make the working drawings that determine the specific nature of each work.
It would be easy and far more expedient to devise some technical means of mass-
WS There are reasons why the use of mass-
Secondly, more than one grid can be constructed on a given surface; grids can overlap,
they can be in different orientations one with another and, in my drawings and gouaches,
they often are. In other words, grids are not necessarily inert or ‘silent’, as Rosalind
Krauss has insisted; grids can ‘speak’ of this surface relative to that. Far from
announcing “modern art’s hostility to narrative”, as Krauss has also maintained,
the grid can ‘imply’ the superimposition of any number of surfaces, one on top of
the other, in exact alignment. The grid is sensitive to the slightest movement, this
way or that; it detects and registers the least shift of a surface in any direction.
In short, grids can indicate the precise whereabouts of one surface and its relationship
with others. Again, this forms part of what might be termed the ‘subject’ or ‘content’
of my work. So, in respect of the ease and convenience of the digitally-
Every new drawing begins with the blank sheet of paper. To explore this surface,
which is the declared object of the exercise, is to examine or investigate it systematically.
As already outlined, the first step in this process is the construction of a grid.
For me, the grid is not an extraneous quasi-
BG So rather than a mere technical necessity, the act of drawing the grid out each time is an active and vital part of your process, and central to the formation of each work. I like the fact that for you the grid is not just a visual ‘motif’, but is the actual generator for the drawing. It has a real function. I notice then that the final drawing is often extracted from the initial grid and transposed onto a fresh sheet of paper as an isolated form. Why do you choose to present the ‘final’ work in this way? I think there is an analogy to be made here with a mathematical equation. It’s not the answer to a problem that is necessarily the primary concern, so much as how one worked it out. Do you not think that the ‘working drawing’ as it were, has as much value as the form that crystallises out of the process?
WS In one sense the grid is a facilitating device; it permits the exact location
of any point on a surface and every possible alignment. Each and every line runs
between two points. Every line is the continuous trace of a point moving in one direction
between two locations, specified by two sets of coordinates, where certain horizontal
and vertical axes intersect on the underlying grid. This infrastructure is usually
not directly visible: sometimes it forms an explicit part of the image and sometimes
it doesn’t. I often produce dozens of working drawings and tracings -
BG I think the physical limitation placed on you by the tool (the ruler) is an
interesting point to pick up on. You wouldn't make large-
WS The ‘approach’ is perhaps less refined than it sounds. It goes back to very
early days when I was trying to work out not just what kind of painter I was, or
wanted to be, but whether I was any kind of artist at all, and not least, what this
might entail as a way of life. Of course there are no stock answers to such questions
and no alternative but to enlighten oneself. Once that process of critical appraisal
is properly under way, one realises there is no end to it. In my case, drawing/painting,
say, is not merely something I do, it is an inextricable part of who I am. Initially,
one of the first questions posed was something of the kind: “let us begin by supposing
you are, at least potentially, an artist working two-