Talking With American Painter Leslie Smith III About Abstraction, Anguish, and Architecture

Artsy: Many of your recent works’ titles reference childhood or classic pop culture, like Peter And The Wolf (2016), Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines (2016), and Only A Paper Moon (2015). Can you speak to this? How does nostalgia play into your work?

Leslie Smith III: Titles are hard. I try not to use them descriptively; nonetheless, I believe they give security to viewers. They’re an anchor to hold onto and sometimes a dock to depart from. I consider the correlation that might be associated with something more universally recognizable. It becomes a lens or filter to color how you might enter into a painting. Sometimes work can be inaccessible; the titles are a way to guide the thought and emotions of an audience in hopes that they share a similar experience.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about nostalgia when making paintings. Be that as it may, I do consider the principles of colors and form as being part in parcel to creating a sense of familiarity amidst a form you’ve never had any prior relationship to. There are transitions of certain colors that locate particular times of day and palettes of colors that might make an audience more or less reminiscent of something.  I usually consider these possibilities when I feel a painting needs a stronger point of access. Similar to the way I think about titles.

Artsy: You’re a classically trained painter with a graduate degree from Yale University School of Art. Can you talk about that decision? How important is formal training for a contemporary artist, in your view?

Leslie Smith III: I’m not sure how important it is for a contemporary artist to have formal training. It’s the same reason I’m not sure it’s necessary for all artists to have gone to graduate school for art. Different artists need different things. I am invested in paint and wanted to know the craft in-and-out, so I studied painting in undergrad at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Graduate school allowed me to find solutions to problems in ways I’d never thought of before. It encouraged risk-taking in ways I hadn’t considered as part of my practice. 

I think all contemporary artists need time. Time to think, time to focus, read, observe, commune, and time to make. Sometimes graduate school can offer these things. This doesn’t mean it’s the only way; it’s just the way that worked for me.

—Bridget Gleeson

Leslie Smith III – Locus of Control” is on view at Maus Contemporary, Birmingham, Mar 17th – Apr 21st.

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