Growing from layers of ideas

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Barry Ross Smith tries to explain what motivates and inspires him to “... stand alone in a room for hours at a time, applying small smears of oil paint to cover the surface of a stretched canvas”. Describing himself as a “tonal painter”, Barry works in oils in the traditional method of the Masters and is inspired by such artists as Titan and Velasquez. The first coats define the form and tone and multiple subsequent coats extend that initial idea. In this way the image is built up with multiple thin layers of paint (glazing). Barry regards each individual layer as an idea, an experiment in subject matter, technical approach and expression.
“One of my painting interests is masculinity as an archetype. As a New Zealand male I am interested in exploring my interior impulses as well as exterior environmental influences such as labels like the “typical kiwi bloke”, and how these cultural stereotypes both define and exclude me”.

In January 2011 Barry completed a Master of Fine Art’s Degree at Whitecliffe College of Arts in Auckland. “Having been self-taught in the technique of applying paint to canvas it was interesting to move into the analytical experience of a Master’s degree. At first the critiques were quite crushing and intimidating. You’re putting yourself out there for direct personal feedback from a room full of strangers and it can be daunting. But there is no right or wrong answers. What matters is that the initial mental idea, made physical by painting, is then transformed once again into thought by the viewer. Those strangers have become friends with valuable insights that can be shared by all; I guess it’s a collective growing experience. At the end of this process the artwork develops, alters and, if it has a pulse ... lives. “
“I’m still processing that degree but it has allowed me the freedom to take concepts and ideas from any time period and genre. One of which is Greek mythology and the Minotaur. I feel a connection between this half man- half bull, born from pride, and myself as a kiwi male.”

rise up


The painting “Rise Up” is a line rugby players performing the Haka portrayed by Greek Minotaur’s. It is a concoction of cultures yet still seems to be quintessentially “Kiwi”. This combining of cultures was previously utilized by Barry in an infamous painting of Queen Elizabeth with a Maori Moko, titled “Heritage”. The date of the Treaty of Waitangi signing appears in Roman numerals next to the monarch. Barry was surprised that the image created so much dialogue. "Conceptually, it could be read either ironically or as solidarity, depending upon your viewpoint. The treaty was designed to give us sovereignty from England, to create a new hybrid race from a combined people - a marriage of cultures, so the Queen of that new nation would need all of the dressings of power from each culture". The work created media attention on tv and radio in NZ and Australia with mainly positive but also some volatile negative public feedback.

In the studio, there’s a work in progress that’s a most unusual family portrait. It depicts a group photo of a fatherly Minotaur married with a Huia bird-woman and two children (a self-portrait of Barry as a boy and a calf/girl holding a weasel). They are standing in a typical New Zealand photo opportunity spot; the back yard. Over the picket fence, the wild native bush encroaches.
It hints at our colonial past and, with a hedge of gorse and a stray possum stranded half-way up a tree, perhaps the unfortunate misguiding’s of some of the colonists. In describing the work Barry explains that …“We are each accountable, not only for the history we create in our own time of living, but also for the privileges bestowed, and mistakes made, by our ancestors”.

“I don’t mind if people aren’t picking up the themes that I relate to in my work, they may be mine alone, and the viewer may see their own narrative, it’s all good. Art describes our place and our time and we all have something to contribute to that”.

Currently under negotiation is a solo show of 10 new artworks to travel to Shanghai at the end of this year. The works are farming themed and designed to display the New Zealand connection with the land and livestock.

Sharen Watson
Freelance Writer
buy a print of Rise Up here