• ArtW

In Conversation with Anj Smith

Anj Smith delves into the silver linings of her coronavirus experience and her intricate painting process that brings her so much joy.

  Flowerings of the Chocolate Cosmos, 2020, Oil on linen, 23.5 x 27.5 cm / 9 1/4 x 10 7/8 inches, © Anj Smith, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 


To hear the audio version of the interview click here.


Marjorie Martay–


It's wonderful to be talking to Anj Smith today, an incredible painter. I was so fortunate to meet Anj because of the recommendation of her gallery, Hauser & Wirth. She was one of our Art W Honorees as part of "Women– We Create" England 2019. "Women– We Create" is made up of experiential journeys that highlight exceptional global artists who have contributed to our cultural landscape. We indeed had a wonderful studio visit with Anj. It was so wonderful to have your books around, your reference materials. It was really a very fabulous experience and thank you for that, I just wanted you to know. Tell me now, how are you doing with the coronavirus? You have so much to deal with between your family and I understand you're preparing for a new exhibition in the early part of next year. That must be so difficult for you. How are you juggling it all?


Anj Smith–


Just prior to this lockdown, I had a feeling that something was going to happen along these lines. So I moved my studio up to the attic in my house in North London. I brought absolutely everything that I thought I could, apart from obviously and sadly the really large painting that I was working on, which is three meters long - I've had to be practical.

The other thing that's a huge point of navigation is that the education system - and childcare - has obviously shut down. I have young children so now I am at home in the day. Then at 6:00 PM my working day starts. I go upstairs and work a full day. When this first started, I was told that this was going to be unsustainable and I was worried that I'd be exhausted, but it's actually fine. There's unexpected joy at the end of my day when I go upstairs, and everything's quiet. I'm at the top of the house, working with my windows opening onto a night sky with a view of the city lights twinkling. I have found it to be an incredibly useful, creative space where the work is just flowing. Obviously, I'm tired, but I've long known how to navigate that kind of exhaustion and I'm just making work after work. It has confirmed to me that there is something incredibly restorative and sustaining about art. It’s a real testament to the power of art and it has brought that home to me with a real immediacy.

Marjorie Martay–


It's so interesting Anj, especially after meeting you, you are so passionate about what you do and to feel really comfortable in the space that you've created within your full day now and really be able to connect with that. I think that's probably Zen-like for you. You get into this certain flow and you're feeling like, "Oh my goodness, this is incredible."


Anj Smith–


Yes, I value every minute.


This Knot Intrinsicate, 2019, Oil on linen, 50.3 x 43.9 x 2 cm / 19 3/4 x 17 1/4 x 3/4 inches,

© Anj Smith, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth


Marjorie Martay–


That's so fabulous. It's really quite a contrast with some of the other artists that I've talked to because many of them are either working but not quite to the same extent as usual or they're having a lot of fear. But I think you've been able to really overcome that, get into this groove and feel like it's exhilarating.


Anj Smith–

It does feel like that. It's ironic isn't it? I've spent so much of my life struggling with anxiety and catastrophic thoughts that in a situation like this, I can cope, because I've learned how to deal with this psychological terrain. So even though this horrendousness is happening – a capacity for creativity can co-exist.

Marjorie Martay–


I think it's a wonderful thing to say, because I think that we all need optimism. We need to feel that even with all this happening, we can still create. We still can connect to our artistic practice. When we can do that, it fills our soul. It really does. Can you describe your wonderful painterly style? You have this unique personal language in painting and I would love everybody to hear about that.


Anj Smith–


Yes! I think what can be noted initially, is the ‘fine detail’ aspect, because there are areas of painting where I use a very, very fine squirrel-hair brush, with literally just one hair that stands proud of the rest. So there is that, but I think of my work as employing lots of different painting languages simultaneously. At the moment, I'm making a painting that depicts layer upon layer of black ice. In order to get a real depth of the color and gradation and to get this feeling of physical depth, I've been using my fingers and skimming light, sheer layers over one another. When I left my main studio, I took only the essentials, including a load of broken pallet knives, which I have amassed over the last 20 years, because they afford the most incredible marks when using really thick impasto paint. I'm using them to build up this idea of a petrified, ancient wood or forest - frozen over, but beginning to thaw. The tiny brushes wouldn't have been able to help me there.

It's so incredible. I paint a little too, but I'm surely not in your category. But I always use palette knives and I find when I do, I can take the impasto paint, and do layer upon layer upon layer. You can also have a lot of gradations of colors underneath that come through. It's so beautiful. Maybe you go back a little to somebody like Van Gogh, which is how I got into it and studying how he did it. I think the quality and the texture that you can get from it and then the number of layers as you said, you're trying to get that gradation of depth... That's really what's so wonderful about it. I also work with wax as well. They're very expressive and fun. I'm hoping that once I finished this blog or at least get a little respite, I'm going to go back into my painting. For me, this has been a period of time to create and connect with all these wonderful artists. But now I want to start connecting with myself. So having what you said about the joy of painting, I'm hoping that will happen for me...and I'm looking forward to that.

Anj Smith–

I'm sure you will. I think it's amazing what the human spirit can achieve in adversity. I really do.

Flowerings of the Chocolate Cosmos, 2020, Oil on linen, 23.5 x 27.5 cm / 9 1/4 x 10 7/8 inches, © Anj Smith, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth  


Marjorie Martay–


I couldn't agree with you more. I'm here in New York city in my apartment and I see so much death around me. Between what's happening in England and what's happening here, it's quite bad. There are some areas that are coming out of it, but we're both in very difficult situations still. So let's get back to your wonderful paintings... You have had this lifelong obsession actually with materiality and a great hunger for conceptual content. Can you talk to me about your thinking on both of those and how does that materialize in your paintings and your artistic practice? I see you as a conceptual artist and do you see yourself that way as well?


Anj Smith–


I do, absolutely. For me, a painting is definitely not just about aesthetics. It's as much a conceptual medium as anything else – for example, performance or an installation. The most important currencies in my work are the ideas. But at the same time, I don’t think you have to sacrifice the visual.

I had a memory pop up a few days ago of being told off in the playground when I was a very small child. I don't remember the circumstances that led up to it, but the other little girls were fighting over a My Little Pony stable. I wasn't allowed to play, and I didn't want to play! Instead, I discovered that if you slashed one of the trees in the playground that this really amazing, sweet-smelling, thick sap would ooze out. You could mold it because it solidified quite quickly. I used to sit there by myself at the playground making all of these fantastical little animals and insects. I built them houses out of the twigs and the leaves I found. And I remember being massively told off about this... "Why don't you join in and play with the other children?" That was probably was a forerunner for my painting practice...!


Marjorie Martay–


It's so interesting you're saying that because you do use twigs and little insects from the environment and your landscape to create your content, as well as the body and everything else. But it's the way you can combine it that I think is so interesting and the fine strokes you use. I think it's amazing the detail that you bring to the paintings that you do.


Flowerings of the Chocolate Cosmos (detail), 2020, Oil on linen, 23.5 x 27.5 cm / 9 1/4 x 10 7/8 inches, © Anj Smith, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth  



Anj Smith–

Yes. There's a reveling in the stuffness of stuff. All paint is really is just earth, dirt with colored pigment and I enjoy the sensory, earthy pleasure of the materiality. I wouldn't want to deny my work visual richness or sumptuousness, because I think you can make conceptual work and have that as well. Why not?

Marjorie Martay–


Absolutely. Personally, I love the feeling of paint. Even though like you said, you're using your finger to create the black ice with your fingertip. I just love taking that paint and that sensualness of it and then creating something with it. It's a little like a high actually. Right? When you approach a blank canvas, you don't make any preparatory sketches, is that right?


Anj Smith–

That's right. I like the immediacy of what is retained if I don't. I have a perfecting impulse, which I have to shut down. I'm not interested in anatomical or entomological accuracy. For example, it doesn't matter if I remember the insect that I'm painting as having an extra pair of legs than it should have. I'm not an illustrator. I'm not trying to paint something that is beautiful, and I don't mind if the journey of the work is visible within it.

Marjorie Martay–


As a child, you didn't watch television because you read. You're an avid reader and you're so influenced by books. In fact, your show that was at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich in 2018 "If Not, Winter" was based on Sappho who is known for her incredible lyric poetry. The title of the show, ‘If Not, Winter,’ was based on a surviving fragment of a Sapphic poem. The way you combine eroticism, mortality, and fragility, it works alongside that sort of psychological territory– the anxiety that you mentioned earlier that you yourself have experienced. What were you trying to accomplish with these paintings?


Anj Smith–

Sappho was a genius. Within that body of painting, I wanted to address the traumatic truncation, the wastage of so much human genius - which either never had a voice to begin with, or was just lost because it was deemed unimportant. Her incredible poetry, her lyrics, are almost entirely lost. In fact, of the few fragments that we have left, some only survived because they were used as examples in grammatical textbooks! We've lost so much of our rich heritage of female and minority voices.

I wanted to address that and also dismantle the romanticism that's sometimes built up around people who make work whilst struggling with mental health issues – also notably excluded, or exoticized. I wanted to take some of that apart and analyze those things together.

"If Not, Winter," is the only surviving fragment of a whole poem. I always try and speak from the personal and then open it out to address a wider social context. In this instance, the personal aspect of "If Not, Winter" related to surviving a really difficult period of anxiety. It was a case of ‘If I don't survive this now, then it's ‘winter’... and ‘winter’ had a bleak prospect. But that show was a bit of a turning point because I had survived and recovered fully. And some of the painting, for the first time, contained tiny little tors of paint standing proud on the surface plane. It was almost as though the paint itself embodied a literal testament to survival. My practice has addressed some very difficult things, but at the same time, a real note of optimism and hope crept into the work.

Marjorie Martay–


That's wonderful. It's so great to come out of a very difficult period for you and then to feel that you did come out of it that there was this optimism ahead. It seems to be similar to what you're going through right now dealing with a difficult period of juggling everything. But yet, there's this pure joy of painting again. I think there's a correlation there.


Anj Smith–

It's interesting you should say that because I was thinking back about this period now of working through the night. The last time that I worked through the night was when I was trying to put myself through grad school. At one point, I was hospitalized from exhaustion because I was trying to get through my course, do all these jobs and maintain family life as well...so it was crazy. It's a much easier time comparatively in terms of my workday now. But I think what is interesting to reflect on, is during that time my practice was forged - through those difficulties. And once you've learned how to survive; you never forget those things.


Cosmic Call 3, 2019, Oil on linen, 53.5 x 77 cm / 21 1/8 x 30 3/8 inches, © Anj Smith, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 


Marjorie Martay–

Yes, exactly. It stays with you.


Anj Smith–

It stays with you...You learn tenacity and how to prioritize. You learn a way around difficulties and you're not impeded by the first hurdle, you can just get on with it.


Marjorie Martay–

It's called courage. It's very interesting. We create these building blocks and they stay with us. As we mature, we can draw from the past to bring them into the present and then into the future... that's what we're all trying to do as we go forward in our lives. Tell me a bit more about that show you had at the Sara Hilden Art Museum in Finland...where you gave me that great book called "Sea Lily, Feather Star." How did that show come about?


Anj Smith–

Oh, that show was a pleasure from beginning to end. I made a show in London at Hauser & Wirth in 2015, called "Phosphor on the Palms." Päivi Loimaala, director of the Sara Hilden Museum came to that exhibition and bought a work for the museum’s collection. So that was the start of the conversation. Shortly after that, I met with the team from the museum who also came to see the show and then it just unfolded from there. Whilst I was in Finland, I decided - while I was installing the show- it would be a great idea to make an etching at the same time! I'm not quite sure why that seemed like a good idea because it was quite an ambitious intention that I had in mind – printing in color for the first time, and on both sides of the paper simultaneously! But I did make the work, which we included in the show. Pertti Ketonen, who I worked with at the time, is actually helping me make another etching series right now... even though we're in different countries and both in lockdown.

Marjorie Martay–

How do you find that medium – working in etching? It's so different than your paintings. Had you always done etchings, like when you studied at Slade School of Fine Arts and Goldsmiths College? Was that something that you did in the past and you're bringing that forward again? Or was it something that you started in Finland because you were into the copper there?


Anj Smith–

I did a tiny bit of etching when I was at Goldsmiths, which was incredibly uncool at the time. There was never anyone in the etching studios, so I was able to have lots of time there. It's the antithesis of painting because you have to commit - once you've bitten into the copper with the acid, there's no going back. Whereas with painting, if you don't like it, you can sand it off or you can paint over it. The whole psychological approach is entirely different.


Marjorie Martay–

Oh, that's so fantastic. I cannot wait to see it. Will that be part of this new show? Will it be etchings as well as paintings, a combination, or are you going to do a separate show on that?


Anj Smith–

Yes, we are going to include them - that's the plan. I'm working on an image that involves three different plates. There's a moth-butterfly hybrid, a little cocoon and a caterpillar. I'm working with those images at the moment.


Marjorie Martay–

Interesting. So it's all about transition?


Anj Smith–

Absolutely...and potentiality. I think potentiality is such an important positive to hold onto right now.


Marjorie Martay–

That's great. Before we go into those paintings, I want to go back to the wonderful show... "Sea Lily, Feather Star," which are folk names of an elusive marine creature, the Crinoidea. How did that inspire you on more literal levels with images of oceans, pedals, feathers and exploding stars? Then there's a macro level...what were you trying to achieve with that?


Hidden Activities (of the Midnight Zone), 2019, Oil on linen, 32.3 x 46.8 x 2 cm / 12 3/4 x 18 3/8 x 3/4 inches, © Anj Smith, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth  


Anj Smith–


When I did the first site visit to the Sara Hilden Museum, it was absolutely thrilling because the space is a beautiful Modernist masterpiece set by a huge lake.

Because we were showing such a large number of paintings, I needed a centralizing idea to pull everything together. There were so many different interests represented, analyzed, and explored. I was really concerned about creating a way in for the viewer.

Whilst I was thinking about that, I came across this beautiful, elusive sea creature. It has different names, but the two that are most common are the ‘Sea Lily’ and the ‘Feather Star’. There's an ambiguity around whether it is a plant or an animal, and visually they are absolutely stunning. But, the other thing that's interesting about it, (in terms of what this creature came to signify in my thinking for the show), is that its shape is determined by its context (of the water). And they are absolutely everywhere - they exist in shallow water and right down in the depths. They've been around for 500 million years and have survived every possible disaster, yet they essentially remain the same. Everything this creature represented seemed to speak to painting itself, in an essential form.

So I decided to use this creature as the tying in point. The ‘Sea Lily’ spoke about oceans for me, the idea of oceans addressing a liminality of the work. Then, the lily - the flora or the fruit of the earth, seemed to conjure the more literal aspect of painting. The animal kingdoms seem to have connotations of the uncanny aspect of what I was dealing with.... and the starry sky talked about the macro, of heavenly realms and space … that unfolded to address the unknown or what we can't know about the limits of representation and language. This thing kept giving, I became really obsessed by it!


Marjorie Martay–


It's incredible. It was a great show to bring all your visual languages together and forward. It was a great combination. I really loved it. Did you have any particular paintings that were your favorite in that show?


Anj Smith–

There is a painting called "Uncurtaining the Night" which is a very small painting. It was about the quality of the light and how that related to the work in this geographical context. What was really strange is that there was a direct correlation between the way that I painted some of the light in landscapes and the actual reality of the Finnish landscape. At first I thought it was in my mind, so I didn't say anything about it, but then lots of people commented on it during the exhibition. And I learnt about Finnish conceptions of light that have no possible translation into English.

Cosmic Call 3, 2019, Oil on linen, 53.5 x 77 cm / 21 1/8 x 30 3/8 inches, © Anj Smith, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth  


Marjorie Martay–

I can identify with that because I had never painted until I went to California. I was so taken by the landscape, but it wasn't only the landscape... It was the light that then went onto the landscape and changed it. You could see it over a period of time. You think about Monet for example who would take one subject matter and then how it conveyed the light would change it. Then he would do the painting again and show it in different lights. I felt the same way with this. This was like, "Oh my God, this light is incredible... How it changes things." There's something very special about what nature gives to us and when we can take that in and convey it to other people...that's what's special about artists.

Anj Smith–

You're so right about that. I think the older I get, the more my appreciation of these things has deepened. One of the frustrations I feel about this lockdown is that I'm stuck in the center of town and I can't get out. Obviously, this is not at the top of my priority list right now, but I didn't realize how much I missed getting into woodland.


Marjorie Martay–


Oh, can I identify with that... I'm in this urban dwelling right now. I have the sky. I live fairly high in this apartment building, and I'm thankful I have windows that I can see out. I can see the water and the wonderful sunsets...that makes a big difference. But I cannot wait to get into a car and go out into the countryside and breathe and go hiking...just to take it all in. I cannot wait.

Let's talk about your inspiration for your upcoming show that you're working on. Will you be using some of the same imagery of the past but maybe transforming your language for a different message? Because I think consistently you do use a lot of the same imagery, but it's a matter of what your emphasis is... Or what you might've read to focus on a new idea. I'd love to talk a little bit about that.

Anj Smith–

It's very interesting because all of my plans for this exhibition I'm working on at the moment obviously predated anything to do with COVID-19. My work has always been about savoring the moment and taking time with a painting. That's why there are barricades in my work that force the viewer to slow down. – they can be quite aggressive in that respect.

I’m interested in the building of and respecting knowledge banks and expertise, in taking time with things. In this sense the works have been quite counter-cultural. We have existed within this fast-paced whirl, whether in terms of consumption of resources or a consumption of constantly evolving data feeds. This insatiable consumption accompanied by increasingly meaningless content, fed to us in bite size chunks concerns me. Part of my work is addressing that because there are real world consequences to this emptying out of meaning. Right now, globally, we need factors that shape our societies in a positive way, so that we take care of everyone. That's something that's been worrying me for a while.

But now we find ourselves in this moment, it seems that I can't really talk about slowing down without questioning and acknowledging about how these enforced lockdowns impact on that vision. At the moment, you find me in the midst of working this out - I'm in a process of evaluating.


Marjorie Martay–

There's no question that this global uncertainty is going to affect this body of work, especially since you're in the midst of it as we speak. Everything that is happening outside of us is going to affect what comes and transfers from within you.


Anj Smith–

Yes, you're right. This has impacted my life so that when I finally start work at six o'clock at night– the psychology is one of a great intensity. When this first happened, my hands were shaking so much, not out of nerves, but from the sheer adrenaline from the anticipation of finally being able to start my work. I was literally shaking and had to calm down - I couldn't possibly paint a fine line with shaking hands. I have had a meditation practice which I now employ as a bit of a fire break between the domestic and the painting. But one thing that is arising, a new thing directly related to this experience that we're all going through - is that the paintings are taking on a great intensity. They've always been quite intense and I've always thought that a small painting of mine can hold its own on a wall. But right now I've definitely noticed a difference. I don't know whether that I was totally conscious of it at first, but it's something that I'm going with because I think it bears witness to this moment.


This Knot Intrinsicate (detail), 2019, Oil on linen, 50.3 x 43.9 x 2 cm / 19 3/4 x 17 1/4 x 3/4 inches, © Anj Smith, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth  


Marjorie Martay–

You also used in your paintings from the past, sort of this dreamlike, sensual, refined look. You almost have something like a gauze going over a painting and how it sort of peels back and the underneath comes. I have a feeling you're going to still use that in a couple of your paintings. I think that's an interesting way that you deal with the body and faces. Are you going to continue with that?

Anj Smith–


That's something that I find really interesting. I love a Borges line in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’– ‘To always omit one word, to employ awkward metaphors and obvious circumlocutions, is perhaps the most emphatic way of calling attention to that word’. Sometimes you can employ obscurity in a work, and that can articulate more than if you address something head on.

Is that a shroud, is this about display or haute couture? Is this something that is protective - hiding and concealing, or is this something that is about desire - flaunting and attracting? There's a tight rope to be walked and sometimes the fabric or the tinted sunglasses can be a device used to facilitate that.

Marjorie Martay–

You've also been dealing with another subject matter in the past, and I don't know if you're going to consider going forward with the idea of gender fluidity. We had talked about this in the past, but you had a friend who was struggling with identity and body images. Your longstanding investigation into questions of gender and thinking about the body as a sort of a complex carrier of different selves. Is that something that you're also going to talk about or deal with?

Petrified Landscape (With Skeleton Flowers), 2019, Oil on linen, 21.5 x 14.6 x 2 cm / 8 1/2 x 5 3/4 x 3/4 inches, © Anj Smith, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 


Anj Smith–


Yes. I've always been interested in this area in a theoretical sense from my days at the Slade. But I think it was brought home to me with huge immediacy, when I saw someone go through a sex change over a 10 year period. Seeing operation after operation - and how it was incredibly psychologically grueling as well - changed the way that I saw the body forever. That was the catalyst for that body of work, whereas now I feel as though I want to take it even further and open that out even more and address other issues to do with the body. For example, I've just finished painting a work called "Nightclubber." It contains more elements of self-portraiture than any previous work, but the figure is a male body.

I've started tapping into a lot of childhood memories. I don't come from a background where we went to galleries or even had TV, and we didn't have books on art. My only exposure to painting was a few books in my primary school, (apart family ‘outsider art’ that I still have and treasure). Even though I didn’t know how to contextualize what I saw in books, I always associated with the agency of the painting, which was typically a male general standing up in his stirrups commanding some military scene. I didn't even notice the decorative woman fainting in chiffon by the side of the horse. So I was thinking back about gender and our bodies and how these thoughts and perceptions and ideas start and how these things calcify. I'm thinking about dismantling those kinds of things. So I'm in the midst of reevaluating again how I feel about all of this.

Wreath, 2019, Oil on linen, 39.4 x 52.5 x 2 cm / 15 1/2 x 20 5/8 x 3/4 inches, © Anj Smith, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth  


Marjorie Martay–

It's amazing. Again, it's so interesting how for you, your past is creating your future. So in addition to how you're approaching the body and how you're envisioning it as we move forward, the landscape is also something that you're going to be dealing with. So talk to me a little about that? How do you see our land changing? I sense that there are probably some things that you are going to take forward from that wonderful exhibit you did in Finland?

Anj Smith–

Right now I'm working on two paintings. One of them is this layered landscape of black ice, where everything is frozen, petrified and an extremity of physical weather. In the other, there's a frazzled palm leaf and everything is sweating, dripping, hot and humid. But you were right when you described the work as having an environmentalist aspect, because that's something that has been there from the very beginning.


Marjorie Martay–

I've done some work in climate change. I've considered how the water's heating and affecting fauna, the land and everything else. I looked at your work and felt like your work really explores the earth and the changes its undergoing. I believe that's a direction that you will go into more in the future. These two paintings are very much a reflection of that.

Anj Smith–

I am absolutely committed personally as an environmentalist, but I never set out to make a painting that is born from my political opinions. Inspiration always needs to descend from somewhere else and be of a certain kind of quality - I know and recognize the thoughts when they come, they have a unique texture. I can anticipate them and say "ok, you're a painting that's waiting to be born" as opposed to political conviction. But then again, my passion for the natural world is always deepening with my ongoing research.

Marjorie Martay–

No question. Well, I'd like to end this discussion with a few thoughts when I was looking at your work and some of the feelings that I had. What I love about your paintings is that you offer this viewer, an ability to slow down and have a respite. It's something you even brought up, which was so interesting. You ask them to actually contemplate and to think. I loved that about it. You need to stop and look. The more time that is spent, the more details emerge from your paintings. In fact, I even took a magnifying glass and was studying some of the wonderful images at Hauser & Wirth. It's amazing what's there. But unless you looked so closely, you don't really see it. You really want people to take a deep breath and really be within what you're creating. It's so impactful and beautifully done. I admire you very much as a painter and as a person as well, so thank you It's a pleasure talking to you today and I cannot wait to see this amazing exhibition come forward next year. Hopefully I'll be able to travel and come see it. That would be for sure.

Anj Smith–

That's so kind. Thank you, Marjorie.


Marjorie Martay–

Keep on meditating, taking those deep breaths and creating as beautifully as you've been doing! I know you will.



To see more of Anj Smith's work and keep up to date with exhibitions visit: https://www.hauserwirth.com/artists/2825-anj-smith

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