CULTURE / by Jack Ruttan

Fiona Smyth
 First published in the Montreal Mirror,  1994

It's the eyes that grab you first. Knowing eyes, foreign eyes, doe-like baby-doll soulful eyes. The eyes of Fiona Smyth's women.

If you've been anywhere near Toronto's 'alternative' scene in the last four years, you'll have seen them. They've been on walls, postcards, clubs, even on the floor of a place called The Reactor Gallery. They're hard to get away from.

"I have a manic need to fill in space," says Smyth. This is as true of her life as it is of her pictures. In addition to painting, she's directing and designing a video, playing in a band, and producing a comic book, "Nocturnal Emissions."

Having it seems 'filled in' Toronto, she's escaping the West Queen Street milieu which saw her first flowering and she's taking her Eyes -- and the other parts of her pictures -- on the road. They've been in galleries in New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles. This week they've come to good old Montreal, where she opens her first solo show in this city, at Galerie Clark.

Going outside of Toronto wasn't entirely a voluntary decision for Smyth. There was initial success, popularity, then quickly oversaturation. She had a big slice of an impoverished pie. "Here in Toronto it was becoming ho-hum, another show, big deal." In fact, working as monstrously hard as she does, she still isn't making a living off her art.

Perhaps, as many artists in this city have found, clubs, bars and the street simply do not make a good art market. The people to whom her work speaks can't pay the big bucks.

Smyth has also tangled with the commercial world of illustration, which likes the appearance and sense of being 'Hip' but whose assembly-line methods and concern for bland acceptability often crushes what is interesting in an artist. Her net-stockinged goddesses probably aren't going to be doing anti-drug ads any time soon.

She herself believes there is no such thing as an 'alternative scene.' "It's so unstable, so fleeting," she says. "Also when people say something's alternative, it sounds elitist and secretive. It boxes you into one category." Smyth hates such limitations. "I want to throw people for a loop, catch them unawares, treat them to new vistas."

For Smyth, showing in Montreal is not so much discovering a new vista as it is a homecoming. She was born here, leaving at age fourteen in the big Anglo migration from Quebec in the late '70s. The city's biggest legacy to her art was three years she spent being educated in the Convent of the Sacred Heart.

Its influences show in her pictures of sloe-eyed Madonnas who wear their hearts on their sleeves, or at least on the outsides of their bodies. The figures in Smyth's paintings are, in her phrase, "exploding" with symbols. They display on their bodies things which originate in their minds: horns, spirals, even little animals coming out of breasts. Also typical are the surrounding auras which do most of the filling up of space, made up of dots and worms of colour.

In fact, lots of influences show up in her painting: the late Keith Haring (of graffiti art, Swatches, and Absolut Vodka ads), Canada's bill bissett, and most importantly in a philosophical way, Latin American artist Frida Kahlo. As in Kahlo's work, many of Smyth's characters stare at the viewer, holding us with their gaze. Some possess Kahlo's mystic eyebrows, which represent twin petals of the lotus flower. Smyth used to be bothered by critics referring to these similarities, but it doesn't affect her any more. She prefers not to analyze her paintings, letting her passionate side rather than her thinking side control what comes out.

Smyth's paintings also tell stories. These she describes as "partially real life, partially cliches." They are told through the viewpoint of a character who is "every girl," but in some ways Smyth herself. The artist part of her she says is "A voyeur. You never really get to know her, you never really get a response from her." She sees this aspect as changing: "The older I get, the more spiritual and less neutral I become." She is also less afraid of talking about her art. Her current series of paintings she characterises as grimmer, more literal than her usual work. "I'm exorcising some demons," she admits.

The comic book falls in naturally with this kind of work. In fact, that's how she began in art, drawing her own science fiction universe in High School. Later, she produced mini-comics to accompany her shows the way other artists would do 'artist's statements.' Inspired by the recent work of other Canadians in comics, she thought she would make some photocopied books. But at a party by chance she said to someone who turned out to be a publisher, "what do you think if I did a comic book?" He thought it was such a good idea he offered to publish it himself.

Whether the fringe exists or not, Fiona insists she is a part of it and not the mainstream. For all the precariousness of this kind of life, she enjoys the freedom she has, of touching many worlds but being a part of none. "It's a cruel world," she says, "but not without pleasures to be had. It takes a lot out of you. It can work for you."

You can see Fiona's work at

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