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Featured: The Unsettling Allure of Craig Actually Smith’s Paintings

“So last time we spoke I was about to mount a horse called confidence”, reads part of the manifesto of accomplished artist Craig Actually Smith’s most recent work, Act Naturally II, which exhibited at Salon 91 earlier this month. The intentional irony here is twofold; firstly Craig is terse when it comes to justifying his creative process and secondly, this body of work was displayed in gallery yet at its core is the desire for pure expression without the lens of academic contextualization or a frantic jostle for a sound position in the art market. As much as he is a fine artist, Craig is also known as an award-winning TVC director (having worked on over 200 commercials) and set designer – but repeatedly returns to the medium of oil paint to “be in the moment”.

Craig Actually Smith

‘At the Gates of Dawn’, 2015, oil on canvas, 1800 x 1800mm.

Craig studied painting at art school, served in the navy for two years and then ventured into photography working at Frank Gross Portraiture. It was only in the late 80s that he shifted to the medium of paint when he began working as a scenic artist and exhibiting in Joburg. Even though his passion for painting remained consistent there was an organic development towards production design which prompted him to start his own business called Company Upset.

Now a full time artist, Craig resides in Joburg and unlike building sets or looking to capture existing moments on camera, relishes the act of painting which gives him the freedom to work spontaneously without any preconceived restraints. This resonates throughout this collection where watery brushstrokes add an emotional depth to figures, and landscapes appear as flat abstractions that somehow feel familiar, too. His subjects are recognisable in form but details associated with a face or a location are often distorted, blurred and omitted to draw the viewer into a world that is intensely unsettling and reverberates on a subconscious level.

Craig Actually Smith

‘Point Break’, 2014, oil on canvas, 300 x 375mm.

The palette of strong primary colours – blues and reds melting into pink with muted greens – repels and attracts. His paintings are commanding in presence and deeply affecting. Figures with tilting heads and bird-like pomposity, noblemen on horseback, authoritative military characters with embellished uniforms, necks with ruffled collars and mysterious figures out at sea feel like an assemblage of ghosts from bygone eras. His images are extracted from distant childhood, recent memory and compilations of awkward social moments. 

The inspiration behind his work lies in capturing instinctive moments and this has taken years of practice to cultivate. To truly allow the spirit to create from impulse without an over-analytical thought process is, in Craig’s words, permitting oneself to get “lost in the moment of that connection”. This is both exhilarating and fearless. Painting connects Craig to life and makes it bearable, linking him to all of the places he’s travelled to, the things he’s felt and the people he’s met. 

'The Apprentice Assistant', 2015, oil on canvas, 425 x 325 mm.

‘The Apprentice Assistant’, 2015, oil on canvas, 425 x 325 mm.

Of his paintings Craig says, “They are visual experiences and do not require much explanation. Besides, it’s difficult for me to talk about painting. If I try to explain what I feel when I paint, why I paint, or my painting process, it usually ends up sounding like a version of a favourite song being sung by a not-so-sober family member at a Sunday lunch”. There’s a sense of social awkwardness in this statement and a shyness lurking behind the courageous act of unbridled self-expression. 

In his recent explorations, the loose style of brushstroke and colours clumsily bleeding into each other is an attempt to dispel self-consciousness and rebel against the neat and orderly. The thick bands of colour forming halos around figures and paint dripping down canvases are symptoms of Craig Actually Smith riding the horse of self-possession discarding “Crippling pride, and with a growing self-confidence [aiming] to try act naturally and just get on with it”. 

'Blue-Grotto', 2015, oil on canvas, 775 x 1025mm

‘Blue-Grotto’, 2015, oil on canvas, 775 x 1025mm

Craig Actually Smith

‘Head Girl’, 2011, oil on canvas, 465 x 465mm.

'The King is Dead Long Live', 2014, oil on canvas, 620 x 620 mm,

‘The King is Dead Long Live’, 2014, oil on canvas, 620 x 620 mm.

'Safari Girl', 2014, oil on canvas, 520 x 520 mm.

‘Safari Girl’, 2014, oil on canvas, 520 x 520 mm.

Craig Actually Smith

‘Eight-legged-escape’, 2015, oil on canvas, 270 x 620mm,

Craig Actually Smith

‘Barcelona’, 2013, oil on canvas, 525 x 525mm.

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