Jo Smail is an autobiographical artist, one of the most articulate artists I know. Given that art is illusion, what most surprises me in Jo’s
work is its seeming lack of illusion, the most magical illusion of all.
You should know that Jo was curated into a South African Biennial in the 70’s by Clement Greenberg. And that in high school as a
student dancer she was taught by a Russian who danced with Pavlova. Curiously, this adds up.
She paints things that turn emotional pockets inside out, her own, ours, and does so delicately. She infuses paint with such love “that
thing we cannot speak about…” that the room in which the paintings are installed softens, its very air charged with the spirit of a
consciousness that is seated somewhere other than the brain. In Jo’s words, it comes from other, from the inside of an elbow, in her
That is where she started after a fire destroyed her studio in Baltimore in 1995. I was lucky enough to come across a painting from that
series last year while I was teaching at The Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore, where Jo also teaches. I didn’t know Jo until I saw that
painting. Then I had to know more. Who had made that seemingly innocent painting tick like a transparent bomb? Oil on canvas,
incrementally unfolding in triangles of pink is an almost impossible task. Here, I felt, was a line of attack not unlike Gertrude Stein’s a
rose is a rose is a rose.
I heard Jo speak on her work:
If I could I would paint the invisible. I imagined it quiet and light. An emptiness surrounded with skin or soft like the inside of an arm.
I wanted to touch, gaze and explore. Could I paint a caress?
Jo had discovered a way to use what is called “abstract “ painting to expose the ephemeral, private part of life…everything that is too
quick and too real to catch in description. Jo sees the term “abstract” as it is applied to painting, as a misnomer. Jo might agree with
me that the AbEx painters were never abstract, nor were they expressionist. They were primal emitters to be sure, and the currency they
put into circulation was and is a palpable intelligence that realizes what lies just beyond our fingertips. It took many of their lives,
presumably because of the question of what next. Jo’s work suggests to me that it needn’t have.
For Jo, what we refer to as “abstraction” sustains life, illuminates, engorges life. The pink painting is flesh, not the cadaver of a figure
made of paint, but somehow it becomes the real embrace of flesh. She has pictured herself starting over again after the fire, from the
inside of her husband’s arm.
Most of the paintings in Degrees of Fluency came about through Jo Smail’s recovery from a stroke she suffered in 2000. Through
drawing and a heightened fearlessness she recovered her speech. This also heightened her already considerable painting skills. Crisis
sometimes throws you into your nature. When it does, a palpable language emerges, made pure again, by its reconnection to the
substance of character, learnt in speaking, visually balancing sounds against silence, reconstructing equilibrium. As Jo phonetically
returns from loss, she reinvents pure painting somewhere past the endpoints of AbEx. It’s a matter of clarity, not about painting, that is
far too general. It is about the luminous connection of a particular intelligence to a precise expression.
Jo admires Louise Bourgeois.
I recognize many traits in Jo’s work that are in Bourgeois’ early drawings, those about which Louise Bourgeois has said, “You leave
them be, because the truth is better than nothing.”
I once heard Louise Bourgeois say, “Artists are born not made. There is nothing you can do for them.” I tell this to Jo and she regales me
with knowing laughter.
New York City