The paintings in John Noel Smith's most recent exhibition at Fenderesky Gallery (2007) each display an obdurate commitment to a narrow set of formal problems, recalling the practice of Smith's renowned countryman, Sean Scully. Composed of three discrete fields, the upper register is the most schematic and rigidly controlled. Thick, bristle-lined paint is applied heavily and deliberately to yield intersecting folds that evoke the compact geometry of a folded flag. The second field, typically narrower, is composed of a coarse, divoted white ground interrupted by columns of thin, horizontal lines. The bottom register is always black and the most ruggedly topographical in character, visually tethering the paintings to the floor. Though completely non-objective, these are strongly emblematic works that deal obliquely but powerfully with national identity, and specifically Irish nationalism. Arranged like so many spurious flags for a fictitious official occasion, he is careful never to employ colors specific to a certain national flag within a given canvas. The relationship, however, is often so tantalizingly close that in scrutinizing his paintings one conjures a range of national emblems, irrespective. So while, Unified Field Painting, Green (2007) for example, may call to mind the flag of the Republic of Ireland, it is significant in the context of a newly peaceful but still divided Belfast that the relationship to that contested emblem remains determinedly partial. As a group, Smith's paintings draw attention to the powerful symbolism latent even in the most abstract works, revealing the process of identification as essentially subjective and historically contingent.
- Christopher Bedford