March 2023

The Nation Reviewed

On senses: Sight unseen

By Rebecca Giggs
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Our series about the senses continues with a neurodivergent painter who cannot hold images in her mind

When it first dawned on Gemma Smith that she lacked a visual imagination, two startling revelations presented themselves unprompted. The first was that the guided meditations she’d been doing might not be, as she’d long assumed, purely conceptual provocations: if a recording urged the listener to conceive of themselves strolling through a tranquil forest, it now occurred to Smith, other people really did conjure up the leafy canopy, the ferns and moss, the purported path underfoot. That is, most meditators didn’t just ruminate on a forest as an idea or a feeling – they saw the forest in pictures.

This was several years ago. Smith, in her early forties, had caught a podcast interview with Professor Joel Pearson, a psychologist and neuroscientist based at UNSW Sydney, wherein he spoke of congenital aphantasia – an innate condition, or “mental style”, characterised by the tendency not to experience imagistic thoughts. People who reported aphantasia said their introspections did not come to them as recollected or speculative scenes. Instead, they might “hear” their inner reflections as a voice or read them as a script. For some, thinking was spatial or presented itself in distinct but arbitrary shapes; for others comprehension was unsymbolised and without any observable texture or rendering at all.

Smith recognised herself in Pearson’s descriptions. She experimented with summoning up an everyday object, an apple. Was it red, was it green, did it show any spots of rot? There was no apple in her head. Try as she might she could not put it there, the likeness of an apple of any variety, in 2D or 3D, as a photograph or a drawing. Her dreams were vivid, but had always been rare, and for this reason alone were extremely precious to her. Yet any waking account she ever gave of them failed to revive the night’s hallucinations, so that when she described, for instance, the figment of emerging from a rainbow-coloured lake to discover her body marbled all over, like the endpapers of an antique book, no vision accompanied the retelling. Smith found she could not remember a single occasion on which her conscious thoughts unfolded as optical impressions.

The second revelation hit harder, for it implied a significant paradox lay at the heart of her life’s career. Far from pursuing a calling in line with this paucity of visualisation, Smith had become a nationally celebrated artist whose creative and professional world was entirely defined by the visual. Her great subject is colour. More specifically, the interplay of colour with dimensionality; colour as an intimation of volume and flatness. Her paintings – held by major institutions and in esteemed private collections around the country – have been deemed “gestural” and “expressionist”, and works of “late-modernist abstraction”, by art critics. Though she does not feel a strong attachment to these labels, she understands them as useful shorthand to convey the sorts of canvases she produces. One series of “tangle paintings” ravelled together ribbons of tertiary colour she built up, layer by painstaking layer, to a livid intensity. Other times she has worked by occluding the line she’d nonchalantly coiled across the composition, tamping down the streaks of its original momentum with one lustreless hue to permit a piecey backdrop to jump forward. Perhaps her most beloved artwork is Zero (2016), a large, energetic painting on display in the new “Sydney Modern” wing of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, composed of translucent surges of malachite green, jammy brown and jacaranda blue.

This passion for colour had roots in Smith’s adolescence, when she’d concocted her own lipsticks using pigment extracted from boiled beets. After decades of artistic experimentation, she had arrived at a place in her practice where she felt so alive to the substance of paint that she could look at any object, in light or shade, and gauge the part-to-part mix needed to replicate its subtleties.

So, what does it mean if she is unable to envision a painting before she makes it? Being an artist who begins without foresight, is she uniquely disposed to work from intuition – free from the disenchantment of a painting that fails to transpose the faultless fantasy of its execution? What is intuition anyhow? The more she thought about it after the revelations of Pearson’s podcast appearance, the more it seemed clear that this question had been the metaphorical undercoat of all her paintings: where intuition arrives from, how it moves, and what are its limits.

On a morning of lemony sunshine in mid January, Smith stands in her inner-Sydney Eveleigh studio contemplating a triptych she is preparing for an upcoming show at Sarah Cottier Gallery. She wears spattered sneakers, grey-rimmed glasses and jeans: Smith rarely dresses in bright colour even as she is daily surrounded by it, dotted onto palettes and meticulously swatched in booklets. On her hand is a small silver ring fashioned after the kind of twist-tie used to cinch a rubbish bag; a sentimental recreation of a gift crafted by her son. She’d begun these three paintings with the notion that they might have continuities that ran in multiple directions, so that they could be shuffled around to connect along different edges via conduits of colour – arcs she thought of as “veils”. Indeed, the shapes do look like dropped veils – sheer, semicircular – and the evocation of transition attends the word: the veil, a garment worn in matrimony or mourning to denote passage between one life-phase and the next. But what is at stake in this matter of joinery has become less clear to Smith, who has developed an artistic process that is highly rule-bound. She steps forward and back from the canvases leant up against the brickwork, trying to decide if the parts that are sabotaging the likelihood of bridges of colour linking across paintings have turned out to be more vital.

Smith finds that this, or something like this, often happens in the denouement of a painting. She will establish a fiat such as this triptych must function as a puzzle that can be put together in numerous configurations and dedicate herself intently to that end, only to discover that some part of the painting denied her focus has obtained, of itself, a serendipitous peculiarity. This is, in fact, the kind of abstraction she courts: neither a wavering representation of things that are in the world, nor a correlative expression of the painter’s inner life, soul or instinct. She wants a painting possessed of its own intuition. To find it, her bid is that both mastery and fluency ought to be eschewed. She designs disruptive and coercive rules to absorb her attention not because she is invested in the direct product of those constraints, but in the hope that appealing elements will appear almost insouciantly, against her better judgement. “The best situation for the work,” she says circumspectly, “is usually not the most enjoyable situation for me.”

While many in the arts pursue a flow-state – a mindset of unheeding, engrossed creativity – Smith makes from productive discomfort. If she grows too fond of a colour, she’ll cease using it. Where tonal gradation suggests depth, she’ll work with contrast to make it look superficial. Wendell Berry might have written Smith a mantra in “Our Real Work” (1983): “The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

But if a painting is the outcome of a set of dictates wound up and let run, how does Smith decide when the artwork is done, to stop? “You know it’s finished when there’s enough… whoa,” she says, gesturing the universal signal for slowdown, two palms pushed outwards from the body as though to forfend some up-rushing energy or complexity. This is one factor to weigh in the conclusion: the sense that a painting is teetering towards becoming too compound, too thorny, murky or forceful. But laid crosswise over this criteria is Smith’s desire to sustain a feeling of ongoingness, or even underperformance, in her artworks. There ought to be an equilibrium between “obscurity and glow”: that which is arcane or covered up, plus something imminent and waiting to materialise. She has sometimes turned away from the wall and made foldable paintings (she describes them as “boulders”) to be manipulated by gallery-goers, so that their settled form is a question the artist both poses and deflects.

Other paintings have a cryptic quality that evolves the longer they’re looked into. She brings out Threshold Painting (2017), a picture that at first glance appears all white. A minute passes in which the sweep and scrape of an adjacent skatepark resounds in the studio, and then: is there not a tint of the very palest celery in the upper right-hand corner? A faint warmth, unripe peach, ascending here, and snowy silver, or a wan pastel blue? The eye chases these semblances that seem to pulse and dissolve, while in the back of the mind a thought begins to assemble: is this not how it was in infancy, when our nascent colour-vision begins to develop? Smith has an extraordinary sensitivity for the bleats of colour we barely see but nonetheless register: the neon-green flash that sometimes attends the brink of the sun as it drops below the horizon, or the violet of an afterimage glimpsed on a light-coloured wall, an effect provoked by lag-time in the eye’s photochemical reactions. These are almost un-photographable colours, and to have them held in limbo is eerie.

“It’s such a grey area, this question of what percentage of the population don’t think in pictures or have full-blown aphantasia,” Smith comments as she tapes bubble wrap over Threshold Painting. “But I do wonder if our modern emphasis on visual culture – online, particularly Instagram – means many more people are becoming less practised at imagining what they don’t see. If it’s a muscle you have to keep exercising by reading fiction and so forth, and it weakens.” Admit that possibility, and a few of Smith’s paintings take on a remedial function. She is drawing our attention to doubt what is truly seen, and what is merely intuited, inward and fleeting.

Rebecca Giggs

Rebecca Giggs is an author from Perth. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Granta and The Best Australian Science Writing. Her debut book, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, won several prizes including the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.

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