To appreciate what you see before you now, you need to understand what it took to get to this point.
Nobody famous said that. There’s probably not even an online inspirational quote along those lines. It’s just some basic common sense, which seems to be forgotten amongst the hyper consumption of art in this day and age. It’s also pertinent to the story of Adelaide based, world-renowned artist Josh Smith.
Smith started to emerge on the streets of Adelaide in the early 2000s, posting stickers to get a feel for how the scene was working. Inspired by the thriving illegal scene in Adelaide, which was much bigger to what we see now, his motivations were his own and soon evolved to stencil graffiti. He was out at 3am armed with the stencils he’d created in his spare time spraying on walls for his own amusement over any grand ideal. It took two years of work on the streets before Smith even exhibited. By 2005, he’d enjoyed his first international exhibitions in Kobe and Osaka, Japan, eventually establishing a global reputation for pushing the boundaries of layering, composition and subject. A finalist in 2009 and 2011 in the Australian Stencil Prize, some of his stencils were taking upwards of 250 hours to compose, and the results were incredible.
But reaching the top of his game changed something for Smith and by 2015, he had settled on a change of tact. Why? “Stencil art, to be quite honest with you, just bores the hell out of me these days,” he states eruditely. “Nobody is doing anything ground breaking. It’s a photo-realism tangent and that’s all.”
As his creative application evolving, Smith made his first statement in the world of model making in 2015 with his solo exhibition ‘The Art of Letting Go’ – a play on his subject matter of aerial dancers and gymnasts as well as a mantra for the change that was to come.
“When I started making the art for my solo exhibition, I was playing with depth. Making cut out aerialists actually free floating in the frame and utilising things like real steel cable and silkwork wrapped around the stencils was a bit of a game changer in terms of my work. People would think of stencil work as a 2D medium, but incorporating the 3D elements was eye catching. I took that concept and pushed it even further when I did the work for The King Of Canvas Art Prize. I thought, a lot of stencil artists would do stencils of buildings, so why don’t I actually just make a building and put stencils on it? Looking back on this piece now, it’s actually quite basic in it’s nature, but it’s got a lot of small details like the cracked windows which are made out of stencil cutting plastic. It was touching on this concept which wasn’t quite there yet, but I was heading in that direction.
Then came his piece ‘Black Shadow Trading Company’ for a Melbourne exhibition towards the end of the year, complete with full interior, working light fixtures a sensory activated alarm with noise. “I think I went a little too crazy on it,” Smith laughs in retrospect.
Starting again from the ground up, Smith has spent the better part of 12 months rebuilding his international reputation in a completely new medium, exhibiting in London, Paris, Lille, Australia and with Hong Kong soon to follow. The delicate nature of his pieces and the frankly woeful accountability of even renowned international galleries have proven a challenge for Smith as he emerges into the field. Yet he continues to push himself to create better works, almost simply for the sake of scratching a creative itch.
“The funny thing was that when I was starting to do all of this, I thought I was the only person out there making these things. It wasn’t until I started producing more work that people started approaching me and asking, ‘have you seen this artist and this artist?’ I came across Drew Leshko who is based in Philadelphia who does all paper sculptures. Ryan Monahan, based in Chicago, his work is probably the closest to mine, very similar in scale and style and the types of buildings we do. But even with all the people I’ve found who do similar stuff, there’s probably only a half dozen in the world I know of who do this medium.”
Each piece Smith creates is a part of an imagined world based around the filth, git and remnants left behind by people in the street. Each piece tells its own visual story, at times with in jokes and personal references but ultimately a reflection of the things which fascinate him about urban environments the world over. It also refers back to his time on the street as a stencil artist.
“I have respect for people who are still on the street,” says Smith. “It’s interesting because even though these minatures are being exhibited in galleries, I’m trying to celebrate more the illegal and vandalism side of bombing buildings with graffiti than murals. Most of the work I’m doing is just a reflection of vandals, vandalising the neighbourhood. I’m not going to go out and deface a large building with my work anymore, but what I will do is make a miniature of a building and then deface that.“
Which to some may be a separation from his roots, but Smith simply doesn’t care for such opinions. “To be quite frank, I don’t care what people think of the miniatures. I’m having fun with them and that’s the main thing.”