Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith

New York City: It’s a steamy, white-hot afternoon at August’s end. The sun is a bubbling lava pool; beneath it, Brooklyn is drenched. The artist Andrea Smith greets me at the entrance of her Clinton Hill apartment building, one foot hovering in mid-air. Wearing a black, bias-cut slip dress and gold chain with spiral pendant (a totem inherited from her Greek Orthodox grandmother, who wore it beside her crucifix), Smith is the most glamorous person I’ve seen on crutches in recent memory. We walk-hop into the cool of her studio, a small, sunlit alcove attached to her living room, as she explains that the injury was the result of a comedy of errors. It involved a fall from a kiss, crushing her lower limb. There are now eight metal pins in her leg.

To attack the sprawling canvas she’s midway through when we meet—a mythic, quasi-religious scene which employs an entire wall of her studio—Smith scuffles across it on one foot. ‘I’m like a flamingo these days’. Luckily, she’s had plenty of practice shrinking her physical world—isolated in long stints over the last few years, like the rest of us, and, strangely enough, via painting, where she often prescribes herself limitations or repeats specific motifs, like flowers, seashells, spirals, and disembodied, Magritte-like eyes. Case in point: the stack of small boards propped against her studio wall, each featuring a single glass receptacle against a jet-black backdrop and rendered in oils. There are water glasses, wine glasses, goblets, jars, and vases, all replicated with the quiet zeal of a Renaissance apprentice and using pigment she has ground and mixed. (She sometimes adds natural materials to her varnishes, like lavender.) 

Smith’s practice is entrenched in painting, but extends to photography, painted clothing, print design, and creative direction for projects like her limited-run newsprint, The A.M.S Sun. Our conversation kept returning to her latest paintings, which unfold like fables populated with her enduring fascinations: the female body; creation narratives; temptation and virtuosity; the Greek Orthodox church; seeing and imagining; the sublime mundane; symbols of life and its circularity; and the intricate, generational threads that connect us to one another and to the earth. Partially indebted to ‘30s Surrealists, Smith increasingly echoes their compositional lyricism and their appeals to a collective subconscious—even as her images derive from waking memories. After our conversation, I began re-reading the few existing English fragments from Surrealist-adjacent writer Joë Bousquet: pictorial, desirous phrases that seemed to rhyme with her work and hint, too, at something eternal, like ‘a body made of wind and sunlight’.

Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith

Tell me about these paintings I’m looking at, each featuring a different glass. 

Maybe four years ago I started painting on a black base, partly informed by the study of Dutch still lifes. I liked the idea of free-floating objects, where there’s no inference to a background. I became obsessed with creating this ultimate flatness or ultimate depth—black can be as dimensional or non-dimensional as the viewer reads it. Initially, I packed a lot of tiny details in the glassware’s reflections, loading them in like an opulent Dutch painting.
Recently, people have said, ‘Oh, you paint glasses’, or, ‘You paint flowers’, But every painting I’ve done over the last couple of years has been more of a study, a challenge to teach myself how to paint anything. I’m trying to test myself.

When they’re the hero of a composition, your glasses often contain reflected patterns, even images, like a medieval-seeming fragment of Christ or glimpses of a beach scene. I notice the reflected images all allude to ‘peace’ in some way: a religious leader promising salvation, a nature tableau. Why abstract those subjects in liquid?

These glasses are taken from life. Years ago I set my glass on my bedside table in front of an icon that I grew up with. I was raised Greek Orthodox, so it’s a diptych of Christ—of mother with child. Seeing it through the water, it looked like a mirage.

Water has become a lens or portal for me to explore abstraction in a way I hadn’t tried before. I began painting the likeness of water as a life source to the painting—I always try to include a life source in each work, but in these studies, that life source has become more like the mirage. By isolating these studies on black, I’m forcing the viewer to see a glass in the same way that my mind sees it. Our minds seek the resemblance of a face or another recognisable form. I’m interested in desire and what we inherently wish to see.

Do you see faces in everything?

I guess that’s a very human tendency, isn’t it? Children are always looking for faces, and maybe I’m speaking to that too. But back to the faces in glasses—I think this became a way for me to inch towards storytelling in my painting, to introduce more of my visual language into my works. A lot of the time, I’m drawn to images or symbols of faith. For example, years ago I would put a butterfly into certain works as an image of faith.

Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith

You say these series of studies have been a way to hone your painting skills. How did you first come to painting? Did you study formally?

So I grew up in Minnesota, in and around Minneapolis. My parents lived in a first-ring suburb all through my schooling, just a 15-minute bike ride from the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, where I have many formative memories. I’ve been painting since I was very young, always mark-making and exploring different mediums. I spent a lot of time at a community centre in my home town growing up—it was an old converted house. In middle school my main interest was ceramics, and by high school I’d started painting in oils. I made so much bad work in undergrad, but I finished at the University of Minnesota with a BA in fine art and a minor in design.

I definitely floundered through my first few years in New York. I didn’t have much time or space to make art while working in retail and doing other jobs. But four or five years ago, I started pushing myself, proposing ways I could get back into painting, which was something I’d been estranged from. My friends Brandon Giordano and Collin Weber—who own James Veloria in Chinatown—commissioned me on these huge fantasy backdrops. We designed a set for their first pop-up at Opening Ceremony on Howard Street, too. So much of my first community was in that area. It was an era. Somehow after that I had the encouragement to name what I was doing.

This studio also feels like fertile ground for painting. Space is a precious commodity here.

It really is. I’ve been in this space since a few days before the lockdown started. A year later I took over the lease from designer Sara Lopez of A–Company, a dear friend who’d inherited it from a painter. I believe he came to it in the same way. It’s one of the last units in our building that hasn’t been renovated and maintains many of the original details. I live here with two other designers. It’s been a very nurturing, grounding space to make work and pass ideas. Our address has a double number that signifies a ‘spiritual meeting point’, which I definitely believe to be true.

In the mornings, I’ll usually stop at my studio first and see what I worked on the night before. Then I go to the kitchen, which faces a backyard. Right now there are trumpet vines in bloom. I’ll sit there, set my mind, and have a coffee. Most mornings—until the accident—I’d go for a run before I got into anything. I tend to paint later at night, when it’s quiet.

Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith
ICON (glass study I), 2021.

Many of your works contain surrealist references: objects floating freely in space, eyes framed by circles, and dreamlike associations. On your website you call this approach ‘soft Surrealism’. Can you unpack that phrase?

I think it’s the best way to describe a more tender approach to identifying with the Surrealist movement. I’m approaching Surrealism in my own way, which I understand as very feminine, subtle, and subversive. I’m guiding the viewer out of reality with me and into a dreamlike state. My visual language has developed through personal experience but is obviously informed by the Surrealists. In this two-dimensional way I’m paying homage to them, letting the viewer know the references are intentional.

Out of interest, whose eyes appear in the circles?

My own.

For Dalí, the eye was a means to reveal invisible things. It was a double image: after a prolonged focus, a second image would be revealed. What does the eye motif symbolise for you?

As it’s my eye, I liked it as a signature, but also as a way to propose that idea of a double image and to challenge the painting’s perspective. It’s a little comical, staring right back at the viewer. Who is viewing who? But also, it’s not that deep! I’m Greek American. Everybody has a mati in my family: mati jewellery, a mati charm, tattoos. It’s like the evil eye, worn by so many cultures for protection. It just became part of my visual language.

Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith
Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith

I often have lucid dreams; I’m aware that I’m dreaming and can shape what happens to some extent. All of your works have this awake-while-dreaming quality. Knowing that your motifs are drawn from your own life, I wonder if actual dreams, or automatism impulses, play any role in your configurations.

Sometimes a painting comes together as a collage. A lot of times, it’s built from photos I’ve taken over the years—I save them in a file of things I hope to paint at one point. In some paintings I’ll make partial sketches beforehand, but the full composition emerges after how I feel as I’m going. It’s very intuitive.

Do you dream often? Have you ever had the same dream twice, or is there a recurring theme?

I dream a lot. We all dream, the challenge is remembering. I try to write down my dreams if they’re sitting heavy with me in the morning. Most times I want to forget them. They’re often not visually beautiful, but I do recognise spaces within them, as if I’ve been trapped in them for years, or since my childhood. Sometimes it’s outdated stuff—like an old mall. In my dreams I’m almost never outside. There is never eye contact. Everything is shape-shifting. Maybe I’m sensing something that ties into what we’ve been speaking about regarding painting. I dream about the absence of space, a lack of eye contact.

And your paintings stare outward, right at the viewer.


Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith
Detail of St. Anthony Tempted by the Devil in the Form of a Woman, 2022.

Can we talk about the painting you’re working on now, this wall-spanning canvas behind you? There are a lot of art-historical references butting up against one another. That silhouette of a woman on the right—a faceless block of bright red—feels new for you. It reminds me of Nicola L.’s figurative inflatables and furniture. And then there are the three saint-like figures gathered together around a haloed form; they feel almost medieval. Behind them is a large nude of a woman, her curves like mountains.

This painting is for my first solo show. It’s called Praying for Wings, opening May 13 at Here gallery in Pittsburgh. It’s actually going to be part of a triptych, an iteration of Saint Anthony Tempted by the Devil in the Form of a Woman in oil and acrylic. It’s flanked by paintings on either side of these very statuesque trees I saw in LA. Those three central figures you mention are actually Byzantine, referencing the Greek iconography I grew up around. They are based on an image where Saint Anthony is shown with worshippers—he was the first person to live a monastic life, the first monk. Saint Anthony was also Egyptian, and supposedly spent a period in the Eastern Desert of Egypt surrounded by devils and temptation.

I was raised in the Church. My mom plays the organ, and we went every Sunday. It’s a very long service, and as a kid I used to be stimulated by looking at all the paintings and icons. I’d stare at the flat faces, thinking they looked like people I recognised. My dad, for instance. I’m still drawn to them.

Do you keep a lot of images of icons in your home?

Yeah. I actually keep them in my room. For a really long time I was resistant to it. I’d let go of religion and was pretty agnostic for a while. That never really sat right with me though. I always felt a little like I was betraying something from my upbringing. And then a few years ago, a friend’s spirit guide made mention of the fact I needed to keep those iconographic elements near me. It would allow my ancestors to channel through them, to feel close to me, or at home in my space. So I asked my mom to send me an icon from home, along with my baptismal cross, which I’m usually wearing. Part of me believed it might be sacrilege to keep religious items around me, but now I find it comforting. They’re channels of my own, and less intimidating to look at than when we were raised with them. Less patriarchal and God-fearing. It mostly feels like a relic of humanity, I guess.

Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith

I mean, it is! During the Renaissance, private patrons would ask to have a likeness of themselves or family members inserted into religious commissions. It could record one’s own place in the world, affirming their existence and that of the divine. So in a way you’re paying homage to how things were.

Definitely. I also use these images almost as a curriculum. While working on this painting, I’ve been looking at Sassetta’s version of Saint Anthony Tempted by the Devil in the Form of a Woman. I discovered the work back in Minneapolis, walking around antique stores. It was on top of a stack of images. I’d never seen this painting before, but I was so drawn to it. I felt like it forced itself on me, and knew I was going to adapt something from it, either compositionally or colour-wise. Soon, I started to see the way I’d paint this work, my version of Saint Anthony’s temptation.

I began obsessively researching this theme, especially the Eastern Churches’ portrayals. I found out Michelangelo had painted a tempted Saint Anthony. And then in the ‘40s all these surrealists entered a contest to paint the theme for a movie. Max Ernst ended up winning, but Dalí submitted a version, as did Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington—a lot of artists I’ve looked up to. Through art history, some women have interpreted the theme, but mostly it was men. I wanted to force my lens onto it. I knew that I wanted the devil in the form of a woman to be my body, to use it as a reference. Many women have probably felt the weight of this projection, being framed as a source of temptation while just walking down the street, or whatever.

For a long time I was allowing my work to be quietly subversive. But I think I’m at the place in my practice where it’s time for me to start directing the flow, directing people’s eyes where I want them to go.

Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith
Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith

We’ve talked about the religious themes in your work, and your own spirituality, which seems separate from them. I grew up in a similar way, and while no longer religious, I sometimes go and sit in churches outside service hours. Is that something you do too?

I enjoy observing cathedrals if I’m travelling, or maybe it’s just that I’ve travelled in countries touched by Catholicism. There’s a sense of disassociation when I’m there—I’m sure you feel that too. I’m going to Greece soon, and will be in strictly Byzantine churches. This would be an interesting question for me after I return.

Perhaps you’ll still feel that detachment—you’re seeing them as a tourist.

Or maybe it will be completely charged, but from a research perspective, examining the way they’re painted. I’m also visiting a church where my great-grandparents were married. I don’t know if I’ll feel a familial connection.

Where is that?

It’s in a coastal town in the Peloponnese, maybe 20 or 30 minutes away from our ancestral village. I’m going for my 30th birthday. The home that I’m staying in is on my mother’s maternal side, down the street from my father’s maternal side. They are both descendants from the same village community, and their families are friends. I want to start a new decade surrounded by that essence. In some ways, I feel like I’ve had the preparation by just keeping this religious imagery around me, even if it’s just for the sake of family tradition or heritage. I think that this was the biggest part of going to church for me: the experience of seeing my grandmothers, cousins, and kids I didn’t know if I was distantly related to or not. When I let go of religion, I probably had a longing for that.

Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith
A Sign (Divine Essence), 2022.

Could we talk about your audience? Would you say your relationship to the viewer has changed over time?

I definitely used to think less about the viewer, and so in some sense I look at my earlier works with detachment. It was more about teaching myself how to do something, to technically figure it out. But elements of that approach have remained. Like in my studies on black, I wanted to disorient the viewer’s perspective. Some were flat, others highly rendered. I know the red devil figure in this canvas is going to stay flat. Now I am thinking a lot about painting as a portal. I think I’ve always been interested in insinuating a portal, though sometimes without much reason. Maybe it was just escapism. But I really want to reward a careful viewer.

I like that phrase. Rewarding a careful viewer.

A friend of mine said it. His work is in a different medium than mine, but it stuck with me because I think that’s what I’ve always tried to do too. I like looking at a painting where there’s something I don’t notice until the time I view it.

Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith
Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith

What is the role of photography in your practice? Do you associate it as part of your painting process, or as something very separate?

I guess it’s both. Documentation led me to painting in the first place—drawing, taking photos. I’d like to compile all of that in some future space. Maybe they can live together in a book, juxtaposing work I was making at the same time as an image was taken.

Over the last few years, I’ve been documenting my family, friends, and community, sketching them as much as I can. I have many, many files of the faces of people around me. I thought that when I turned to more figurative work, these images might be reference points.


What camera do you use?

Honestly, I always just use one point-and-shoot. Right now I have a Ricoh, previously I had Olympus point-and-shoots, which are now so expensive and so unreliable. My last died after five months. I get whatever’s cheap; I’m happy with this one right now. The camera is more of a means to an end for me, which is why I would never be a photographer. I just want to capture the feeling.

What has your eye been drawn to recently, outside people?


In the past months, it’s been things like flowers in my backyard. I’m looking at quiet, zoomed-in details that jog something in me, like the reflection in a glass.

Apartamento Magazine - Andrea Smith
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