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Image of Landscape by Keir Smith
Keir Smith, Landscape. Photo © Jesus College Cambridge

Keir Smith

Work exhibited: Landscape.

The sculptures of Keir Smith often have the appearance of remains, fragments of a structure that has either been dismembered with violence or that has never been free from the possibility of its own slow undoing.

His fascination with rubble, with the dissolution of something built to last, has a paradoxical motivation in the desire to collect and preserve relics of a traditional symbolism whose most familiar scenarios we now respond to with a feeling of estrangement. This concern with different kinds of dilapidation, with the destruction of buildings, and with the disarticulation of some of the most influential stories in western culture, has its roots in a mixture of biographical and cultural memories.

Since childhood, the artist reports, he has brooded on the aftermath of bomb damage inflicted during the Second World War, both on the city of London and on certain Italian churches where the artistic loss has haunted his creative imagination. His retrieval of the pictorial and decorative schemes originally commissioned for these spaces has involved a crucial revision of the role of decoration with regard to the principal subjects of the paintings involved.

From an early 21st century viewpoint, certain features that would have been central to the artist’s conception are now relatively peripheral to the range of our usual concerns, while attention to the marginal details in the composition gives them a significance that is magnified many times beyond original expectations.

It is not that Keir Smith is simply mimicking the historical shift in what we recognise as culturally significant, far from it. Rather, his inspection of the most frequently overlooked areas of the painting finds in them strong implications of the need to refocus our reading of the iconography. The flaws and fissures in the stonework depicted are not irrelevant, but directly informative about the general condition of the world in which the figures stand or sit.

The siting of the sculpture Landscape with Carlo and Elena (2003) in the present exhibition makes a similar point. The cloisters at the centre of the College no longer serve the purpose of providing space for movement conducive to meditation, they are simply a thoroughfare. Most members of College use only those arcades that will get them from one place to another. Keir Smith’s installation has restored the itinerary of the original design, encouraging contemplation on the construction of meaning.

The sources employed persistently and systematically in much of Smith’s work during the last ten years have been those of Italian quattrocento and cinquecento painting, in particular the altarpieces of Carlo Crivelli and the frescoes in the church of San Sigismondo in Cremona.

The present work alludes in its title to the influence of Crivelli, and revisits an earlier object of Smith’s curiosity in its speculation about the resonance of nails in the earlier artist’s work. Smith has always been intrigued by the crude nail driven into the fine marble panels of Crivelli’s Madonna della Rondine. Its obtrusive purpose is to hold swags of decoration in place, to secure a relationship between elements that would otherwise be foreign to each other.

The use of force to effect this unity is telling, and the incipient cracks it causes in the marble even more so. The large nails in Smith’s composition are clearly capable of equally traumatic effects. But there is another allusion to nails in the title of the sculpture as well as in the symbolism of the painting, and that is to the incomparable power of the nails used in the crucifixion.

According to Jacobus de Voragine, in The Golden Legend, the discovery of the True Cross was the work of Helena, mother of Constantine, who delegated the job of finding the nails to Quiriacus, the newly ordained Bishop of Jerusalem. Although they had been buried for 270 years, the nails materialised on the surface of the ground in response to Quiriacus’ prayers. The violence of their original use was the precondition for their redemptive power; Helena’s mission was motivated by politics as much as by religious devotion, and she accomplished her ends with death threats and the application of torture.

When the nails had been recovered, they were either fashioned into a bit for Constantine’s war bridle or welded into his helmet. In other words, the symbolism of the nails combines destruction and creation, makes the conditions of damage and repair, fragmentation and coalition, inextricable from one another. Smith has written of his work that "warfare defines the territory in which these sculptures exist", suggesting the degree to which his project is sustained by a tension between different but related concepts of neglect and restoration.

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