Mark John Smith

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Mark with his duvet pieces

Mark with his duvet pieces

Mark John Smith welcomes me at the door of his Brooklyn studio with a warm, cheeky smile. I had found Mark’s website online and was drawn in by his imagery and use of text. I wanted to know more about his practice so I got in touch and he responded immediately. A British native with a strong interest in the ways in which the culture of advertising and marketing influences our lives, the Big Apple, the centre of the commercial art world, is the perfect setting for Mark’s artistic practice. Yet his work remains grounded in his British roots. 

Both aliens trying to ‘make it’ in a foreign place, I feel that Mark and I share an understanding that comes from being an outsider and seeing how a society operates from that external perspective. Not to mention that Australian culture borrows a lot from its upright British predecessors, meaning we share a tendency for polite modesty and self-deprecating humour, which is often unappreciated or misconstrued in America. We discuss how these experiences shape our outlook:

“Growing up in the UK and going through the British educational system, which is very specifically nuanced and a hangover from the Victorian system, I think the pressure and the stigmatism that’s placed on individuals to conform to that historical understanding of themselves became really evident when I came here, dislocating myself from that culture all of a sudden. I felt incredibly emotional, looking back and seeing how governmental policy and education mould you. Not only that, but they also condition the way in which you begin to think about yourself and your history.” 

Mark’s signature duvet pieces, a series of duvets with colourful spray-painted text and abstract lines, are conceived from this understanding. 

“I was born in 1987, so I’m kind of a product of New Labour, which was all about that emphasis on ‘you can be your own brand’, we won’t do it for you but you can do it yourself. It’s similar to the American aspiration, the American Dream. So I wanted to take a very personal space and try to subvert it somehow using the language of angst or protest, which is where the graffiti writing comes in.”

Mark’s work exists in a space that shifts playfully between the languages used in advertising and marketing, and the visual language of formal aesthetics and display. Insightfully describing advertising as the “tapestry of the 21st century”, he consciously references marketing and advertising slogans and formats in his work.  

Language and text play a big part in Mark’s practice. Words are the most obvious and easily accessible means of communicating, and we are used to automatically taking in the visual language of marketing, reading the signs, slogans and labels that constantly surround us. Of his use of text, Mark explains: “I think it's something that we are instinctually focused towards, like we’re programmed to look at circles, because of people’s eyes, it’s the same thing with text.” 

Mark suffers from dyslexia, a fact that he offered up readily upon our first meeting, evidence of his open and generous nature.  This experience has influenced his fascination with the power of language and words. 

“The duvet pieces are full of spelling mistakes, like ‘public’/’pubic’, things like that, where one switch and the meaning is completely altered. They are actually lifted from typos that I myself have made in the past, to varying degrees of chaotic response.”

The duvets are sometimes hung on the wall like a canvas, so that the text and message is clearly readable; other times they are hung from one point so they fold and gather, or are placed on the floor in piles, referencing minimalist artist Robert Morris’ 1960s felt pieces. Having spent time researching and writing on Michael Fried and minimalism, the formalism of the minimalist aesthetic continues to inspire Mark’s practice. 

“Depending on the method in which they’re displayed, the message is either obscured or it goes back into the aesthetic, so they shift from the political to the stand-alone art object. They go from being really deep to just being about the aesthetic or the formal qualities of the work.” 

These works are designed so the viewer can interact with them. The very nature of the material Mark uses, a ‘readymade’ duvet from IKEA, encourages tactile responses, and this is a conscious part of the piece. There are constant crossovers between public and private in Mark’s work, with references to the domestic space of the home and the bed interspersed with the political of the public realm.

Another work, Mum, Dad, Brother, Fag, utilises a plastic laminate tablecloth as the decorative canvas for a confessional narrative slogan. 

“This is a new thing for me; I’ve never actually before made a work on a canvas, per se. This is investigating interweaving my personal but also at the same time the socio-political situation that I’m from. So using the tablecloth, which I think resonates with middle-class suburbia really horribly, using that as a canvas to then write on, in the same way as the duvets.”

The dimensions of the piece are a deliberate reference to the surface of a dining table, pointing to the tradition of the family meal and the associations that brings. Mark explains: “I’m looking at the table as a gathering point, and the position that we articulate at the table says a lot about who we are and the dynamics of those people around that space.”

Mark takes cues from many aspects of personal and public life, finding inspiration in unexpected places, and revelling in the dialogues that arise from multiple associations. 

“It’s those spaces or those sites that can have a second function, like a hidden layer behind them, that appeal to me. So whether it’s a duvet or the tablecloth, things like that really, these peculiar sites that are transient but at the same time have such a pivotal effect.”   

Mark’s work is made to exist in public space, whether it is displayed on billboards or screens.  

“I’m really passionate about taking art and culture outside of the white cube environment and displaying it in the public realm, so that its not only enriching but also its not this idea of plop art, so its doing something new but in a way that’s sensitive to community. 

By taking his art outside the gallery space, and utilising sites that are traditionally used for advertising or community service announcements, it reaches a broader non-art audience and can engage with the very issues that inspire the work. 

“I’m at my best when I’m making works that resonate not only with myself but also with what’s going on at the moment. So everything I do, my lived experience as it were, is part of my creative process, and it’s just finding the trigger or the tip of the mountain to start mining into it further. And I think language or sexuality or the body or contemporary culture, the vacuous nature of the digital file, I think all those things are just the starter points and you can start getting into the heavy stuff.”

As an artist working in the commercial centre of the art world, Mark is hyper aware of the structures that function to keep some people in and others out. “The art world, this is a site of privilege, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, to reference it.” 

However, the space of the studio is very important to Mark, who spends a lot of his time working on his laptop and planning his pieces. “I just love to spend time in my studio. I think it’s really important to have a space to dwell, and think and read.” 

I ask Mark what motivates him to make art. His response is beautifully simple.

“For me it’s born out of a desire to communicate, and to engage. And I think its that, it’s wanting to give a little nudge to somebody, to give them a gentle tap to make them re-examine or pause or question or second-take things.”