To the poet John Keats, “beauty is truth, and truth beauty,” but for Maxine Smith, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Smith, whose portraits reference the abstracted linear forms of Amedeo Modigliani, the dynamism of Max Beckmann, and the often-surprising colors of Henri Matisse, eschews traditional notions of beauty in her technique and choice of subjects. Instead, she chooses to represent the idea of “truth” through depicting unique characters, vibrant personalities, and idiosyncratic bodies with her brush. Taking as her inspiration people from all walks of life, from elegant ladies decked out in furs to waiters in long white aprons, Smith’s revel in a playful, push-pull sense of familiarity and strangeness.
Smith did not start out as a painter—after becoming a successful interior designer, she found herself taking classes intermittently in her 30s and 40s at the Art Students League in New York, unable to resist the call of those works on canvas that had excited her in her youth. After relocating to Los Angeles, her particular style began to emerge over a period of five years. Having before merely “dabbled,” in art, as she puts it, at this point Smith took a sharp turn into the world of working professionally as an artist. Smith’s works are now in several private collections, and she has participated in gallery shows in New York City, East Hampton, and Los Angeles. Her 2016 solo show at Skidmore Contemporary Art, “Here’s Looking at You,” was a tremendous success.
Honed by years of people-watching living in New York City, Smith’s eye and hand distill the slopes of torsos and curves of faces into simple, clear forms. While she primarily works on canvas with oils, she also relies on drawing and charcoal both as preparation for a painting and in their own right. She paints both from life and from photographs, preferring to depict strangers rather than friends, both due to the opportunities for both honesty and creative license. In her own words, “there’s no pressure to please; I can manipulate the image as I choose.” Yet there is no shortage of empathy or intimacy in her works. In her series At Your Service, a collection of images of people working in the service industry, The Laundress and The Housekeeper exemplify this approach: through the careful clarification of details and use of limited palettes, Smith has created two portraits of women to whom we owe freshly our pressed suits and spotless living rooms, but who so often go unnoticed and unappreciated—giving them their “moment,” as Smith puts it.
In her newest works, Smith’s style has become bolder and more stylized, with paintings such as Gallery Girl and The Bellman hinting at darker themes and a more melancholy air. When it comes to what Smith hopes viewers will take away from her paintings, she says, “I hope that the viewer feels some emotion when they look at the portraits I’ve created...a smile, a question, a thought...something that makes them linger.”
Maxine Smith was born and raised in New York City where she traveled to school on buses and subways. She spent a lot of time observing people. It fascinated her, and still does, the fact that in this over-populated world we live in, there are no two faces alike...very similar perhaps, but not identical.
She believes we all have our own road map. It was her fascination with the human face that drew her to painting portraits. She prefers to paint people she doesn’t know as it gives her more freedom to create without any pre-conceived notions, or the pressure of having to please.
She says, ”As I sit at the easel with a new face before me, someone I have never seen before, it makes my heart beat a little bit faster! The chances are I will never see that person again, a stranger who on canvas will linger. A stranger who will become a friend.
I have always stayed away from painting traditionally ”pretty people“. Just doesn’t seem to work for me. I look for character in the subjects face and find very often it is the person that has ”lived a life“ that most appeals to me. What is behind the smile, the glance, the body language...it is that story that comes alive for me.“