The Twentieth Century Society

Exhibitions: London Overspill

James Smith (Various venues)

Reviewed by Elain Harwood

I first saw James Smith’s work at a Royal College of Art degree show in 2012, where in a sextet of landscapes, neutrally lit under even grey skies, he captured a monumental quality from seemingly mundane objects; whether the pilot station at Folkestone with its raw concrete panels, or a pile of hay bales. His way of magnifying an object, usually symmetrically placed, is immediately distinctive, as is his understanding of post-war architecture. The subtleties of the pilot station are slowly revealed after long study of the image.

Smith has spent the following two years on a series of exhibitions featuring new photography in New Towns, although he lives in Northampton and his interest in them goes back some nine years or more. The series ended at Peterborough City Art Gallery, after earlier shows in Hatfield, Luton and Harlow. There was the same attention to small everyday details, the same searching for the particular from the general; something quite alien to the New Town vision of generality, openness and, above all, movement, which gave each of the shows a disturbing fascination.

Smith’s formal, classicising quality is very different to the romantic photography of 1950s artists such as Eric de Maré who created the early images of New Towns, and indicates a more general change in architectural photography over recent decades.

The four linked shows in four very different venues produced very varied responses, drawn out at the last exhibition in Peterborough which brought together works from the earlier shows. Each town had a theme: Overspill for Hatfield, Overlay for Luton, Estate for Harlow and Parkway for Peterborough, simple words and themes that get to the heart of each town’s ethos. Smith concentrated on details, except at Harlow, which blossomed into a large show impressively displayed in the Gibberd Gallery – the nasty mongrel civic centre has a surprisingly fine space for art – with very large pictures displayed in a series of triptychs. Indeed the galleries say as much about the towns as the pictures, from the refined, formal Peterborough City Art Gallery to Luton’s Departure Lounge, a sprawling semi-derelict 1950s showroom. Locating the shows has been an exploration, with all the journeys and experiences of landscape that you expect from New Towns and which the photographs firmly (indeed challengingly) refuse to consider. For fans of pure landscape, a hillside with a water tower is about Smith’s lot.

The Peterborough show, devoted to the city’s arterial road network, began with triptychs of concrete details, all given equal weight, all deadpan. Nearby, features from the earlier shows included brick, shingles, terrazzo, steel over-bridges and scraps of art from the technical college at the heart of the University of Hertfordshire at Hatfield. People are absent, though not their cars and the impositions they have made on the architecture, whether flowers or the awkward handrails added asymmetrically to the fine blocks that define the amphitheatre entrance to Bishopsfield. The open New Town landscapes are often reduced to a single tree or flash of autumn colour: a circular white brick wall with a tree in leaf fall is perhaps Smith’s defining image. Above all, he brings out the beauty of a structure, however simple it may be, and his ability to do this with a whole building is for me more striking than the details in which he also rejoices.

James Smith is now working on a book of the London Overspill project, and on a new project that develops his work Tense from the RCA.