Prints among men


“A lot of what you’ll do in the art world is all on your own back. If you want to be in exhibitions you have to keep trying. How far you go is all up to yourself. It’s what you put into it.”

Aaron Smyth has put a lot into it. The 21-year-old Dubliner, who joined a portfolio class at the Meridian Art Group at the end of fifth year, is now entering his final year at the National College of Art and Design.

Smyth won the Black Church Prize at the end of his second year at NCAD for his large scale three piece lithograph Ecce Homo. His work was then displayed in the Black Church Print Studio in Temple Bar. Further success, however, has meant that today you have to go farther afield to view his work in a gallery.

Smyth’s work is currently on display in London’s Bankside Gallery and his artist’s book was accepted for the European Artist Book Biennale in Moscow. He has also been selected for Kuntspodium-T, a European initiative to get young emerging artists and contemporary artists together. Students from different colleges are matched with a contemporary artist and allocated a gallery in a specific country. Through this initiative, Smyth will be doing a series of exhibitions throughout Europe.

Over the last year Smyth has been working a lot with lithographs. Lithography sees the artist draw their image with a greasy substance on a limestone plate.  The stone is then treated with a mixture of acid and gum Arabic that cuts into (etches) the parts of the stone unprotected by the paint, leaving the artist’s image slightly raised. The stone is then moistened with water with the etched part retaining the water while the painted part sheds it. An ink can then be applied that sticks only to the drawing, allowing prints to be made.

The lithography machine itself looks like something from the Spanish Inquisition, a contraption you would imagine wholly unsuitable for producing work as subtle and melancholic as Smyth’s. There’s an eye-opening contrast between the softness and sense of vulnerability in the lithographs he produces and the grain of the stone that was used to make them that can still be seen in the prints.

It’s only recently that male depression has really come to the fore.  There’s something in that that’s a keystone to what I do. How men express, or don’t express their emotions, how they hide them.

Ecce Homo, Smyth’s most recognisable piece so far, is the culmination of an earlier body of work heavily involved in contemporary ideas of masculinity, something that is still a concern for him today.

“It started with the artist’s book that’s now in Russia and then continued with The Politics of Emotion and The Myth of Manhood, finishing with Ecce Homo. They were surrounding the notions of teenage depression, suicide, these big things that we see coming up in the media and in the news.”

“It’s only recently that male depression has really come to the fore. There’s something in that that’s a keystone to what I do. How men express, or don’t express their emotions, how they hide them.”

More recently it’s becoming more focused on gender and roles rather than specifically on masculinity. “I needed to do the work on masculinity and now it’s become more open. It’s about how masculinity and femininity coexist. It’s a big thing in my work, the place of roles in our society, I think often it’s glazed over. There was such a shift with feminism and queer theory and Ireland is still that little bit behind in accepting certain parts of these. We’re slowly getting to a point where other countries have already been.”

In terms of the art scene in Ireland, Smyth believes that there’s plenty happening. “There’s a lot going on in Dublin in the smaller galleries. In some respects it’s tough to get yourself a pedestal when you’re trying to come up in Ireland but we’re lucky with the collective that we’ve been able to secure group shows.”

The collective is the GUM Collective, a group of NCAD students who display together. Their next exhibition, called Traces, will be in the Library Project in Temple Bar, November 3rd to 9th and will be a great gateway for anyone who wants to explore what’s happening in Irish art today.

“At Kuntspodium-T, we had eight different colleges from all over Europe coming together and we presented our work to each other. Judging from that, the big things happening in Europe at the minute are divided between very minimal and heavy conceptual work and then somewhere between minimal and traditional works that have a more art historical basis.”

“A lot of what seems to be occurring in the art world at the minute, you could put a very broad word to it, and call it existential. After the turn of the century a lot of the work focused on dealing with where we are, trying to understand ourselves as humans within this space.”

“A lot of digital work represents interactions between the digital and humanity, there’s a lot of that going on but I guess art has always dealt with, no matter how far you go back, trying to grapple with terms of understanding life.”

Smyth's desktop at his NCAD workspace

Smyth’s desktop at his NCAD workspace

The digital age, like in every other sphere, has changed the art world. Ideas spread faster and influences are on tap on tumblr. From a practical sense, submissions can be viewed online, saving the artist the effort and expense of shipping their work to and back to be assessed.

“It changes the notion of ownership in certain respects. I make a print and I’m of the opinion that the one you see up there has a different feeling from the one you’ll see online. There’s something physical about it. It’s been described as an aura, there’s something about having a physical piece as opposed to the digital. There are very strange boundaries now as technically anyone can have your work [once it’s online]. Or indeed anyone can copy your work.”

Though the digital age is a shift in production and reproduction the likes of which we’ve never contended with, Smyth believes that there are elements of art and the artist’s process that remain the same.

“I never see myself stopping making art. It’s a curiosity about understanding certain things. Using objects to describe feelings, emotions, interactions, I think that’s something that’s gonna keep me going for a long time. Human existence always has something new occurring.”

“Curiosities change, influences change, how your work manifests changes. How my work is made is something that’s gonna change. I drive myself. I’m doing ceramics now, to try different mediums and what they can give to my art work. There’s always a curiosity for medium and understanding.”

 Aaron Smyth will be exhibiting as part of the GUM Collective at the Library Project in Temple Bar, November 3rd – 9th.

D. Joyce-Ahearne

D is former Contributing Editor of Trinity News and Trinity Graduate.