"The Making of the Landscape" - Vane, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 2010

Commissioned article to accompany the exhbition by Alan Smith

We are no longer frontier men stumbling through nature’s undiscovered assets. If curious about a place we can pre-empt a trip there by watching the many travelogue TV programmes, reading OS maps or becoming Google Earth tourists. We don’t physically have to go anywhere and even when actually travelling we are guided by the cheap petrol station road atlas, signposts, Sat Nav and/or GPS navigation systems embedded in our mobile phones. There has never been a more wide-ranging and elaborate graphic interface with the landscape for human travel.

”The making of the landscape” as a title could be taken as a literal account, a descriptor for mechanisms of earth moving; the transporting ‘with varied intentions’ of raw materials from one place to another in order to shape the landscape to our own ends. We see it exemplified by the world’s quarries and mines as well as in the work of landscape architects and land artists.

Matthew Smith seems at first sight to co-operate with the traditional idea of the landscape artist: his images have a conventional landscape orientation to emphasise the horizontal or horizon and carefully balanced compositions creating idealised scenes. But here he parts from our pre-conceived image: Smith is a distanced observer. He exploits our physical disconnection with place by manipulating varied, commonplace graphic representations of topography and habitation. He pictures an idealised rural landscape from his home in London or while journeying across country via the anonymous infrastructure of motorways. Through this remote relationship with places he has come to understand how we’re steered by graphic/visual representations and how these mediated images shape an idealistic view of ‘countryside’.

Entering the gallery and making my habitual clockwise sweep of the exhibition I was at first puzzled by the diversity of the works, but with time to find my own way around I placed the painted series “Ectopia” as my start point in an imaginary journey. For this series Smith has mutated sections of the British coastline into single-coloured silhouette islands. He has virtually shifted landmasses, bringing to mind the tectonic shift over eons of geological features, transforming the familiar outline of the British Isles into new and strange topographies.

That takes me to the “Untitled (1:25000) ANW” series of drawings. These offer a journey into an illusion of an environment, a place of contemplation; the drawings employ the convention of the map-maker’s topographical line to form a representation of height and depth. As a virtual traveller tracing these contours I can find myself winding through chasms and climbing high mountain ranges.

Before leaving on this imaginary journey I might want to know how the place looks from the ground and so turn to Smith’s “Corporate Landscape 2”. This drawing depicts a place of uninhabited natural wonder, an illustration of a natural environment on our wonderful blue planet that has not been modified by human activity. Here Smith embraces irony, the image is in fact composed of joined up corporate logos; graphic renditions of mountainous places originally created to represent permanence, power, wild purity and distant horizons; places to aim for while looking up and forward; something to allude to, a dream or goal.

What beasts would we find in this new land? Smith has presented us with a Disneyesque look into the world of “British Wildlife (mammals 1 and 2)”; in these two drawings he has brought all the species of British mammals into one melodramatic setting. Here the silhouetted animals collectively pose on a dry-stone wall, unthreatened by one another. They appear strangely at ease, perhaps because of being free of the presence of man, although the crumbling wall and dark, brooding sky might suggest something more ominous.

How we travel there is indicated through a series of hand-coloured photographs showing the nondescript nature of motorway exits. Smith’s on-going “Junction” series of M1 exits holds up to us the homogenised and soulless way in which information is delivered; exit number, road number, where the road leads to, distance and directional symbol give nothing away to the nature, history or context of the place we might follow the directions to. Of course traffic or road signs are there to provide information to travellers in a manner that make easy reading, aid navigational decisions and not to be opinionated and potentially controversial.

In this exhibition Smith looks at how collectively as a society we behave as a remote receiver, engaging from a distance with the natural environment. Mass culture’s seemingly innocuous depictions are presented – and received – as factual. Does this contribute to how we build stereotypes and are we subliminally steered through an accumulation of discriminative and pervasive images that prevent us from engaging freely and autonomously with the elements directly in front of us?

Of course the fact that Smith is creating his own representations of nature by reinterpreting other representations of nature makes him a contributor to the myriad of imagery. I can only thank him for holding these thoughts up to me; I’ve enjoyed navigating his enquiry.

 Alan Smith is an artist, and co-founder and artistic director of Allenheads Contemporary Art.