In this the winter of art's blatant commercialism, artists get points for modesty and sticking to their convictions. Vic Joachim Smith is such a one, and the proof is on view in a mini-retrospective at Cal State Fullerton's art gallery through Wednesday.
Smith has always used art as a spiritual touchstone, although you wouldn't always know that from looking at the work. Beginning with the "Point Lobos Series," started in 1959, and moving through his abstract work of the mid-'70s, Smith's art appears highly professional, exceptionally skillful and intensely calculated. Whether he echoes the surfaces of Philip Guston, the atmospheres of Mark Rothko or the pristine concerns of Southland light-and-space artists, there is a great elegance about the work. There is also an aura situated somewhere between the grandly tragic and the merely worried.
In either case, it ill accords with the art's numinous aspects. There is something vaguely suspect about stylish suffering. It's like all those languid Renaissance St. Sebastians that leave you wondering if the guy is in pain or posing for a calendar.
The conundrum is finally solved in Smith's recent work, which appears to be a startling volte-face . He has taken to drawing like a naturalist, limning the bugs and birds, flowers and herbs of the rural area where he lives. His touch is remarkably unchanged, extending even to some extraordinary hiking staffs whose knobby wood is transformed to scepters for the patriarch of the forest.
Smith draws an occasional gawky fledgling that suggests Morris Graves' metaphysic, but the real sensibility emerging has its wellsprings in the German Renaissance. Here are dung beetles and tiger moths, observed with the empirical accuracy of Duerer; Smith's cottage, drawn with the gnarled affection of Mathias Grunewald, and a field of plants gotten down with the near-hysterical lyricism of the Nazarenes.
We had the guy wrong. This is not art about spiritual enlightenment; it lacks the resolution that produces spontaneity. It is art about spirituality that is forever missed because it is sought. This is aspiring art, classic Romanticism. It cannot be accused of selling out to Neo-Expressionism because it has found its new guru in German Romanticism.