Since 2014, British artist Nick Smith has employed a trademark style: transforming some of the world's most recognizable artworks into "pixelated" creations using paint sample color chips. The style is reminiscent of how images are pixelated to censor them in the media.
But Smith isn't merely recreating famous works. His style is a satirical comment on the art market itself. In particular, he's obsessed with the ways in which stolen art can accumulate clout and value even when no longer available for the public to consume.
A major example is Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, sparking the fervor that surrounds the masterpiece today. In the period before the painting's return two years later, Smith tells us, "people came just to see the empty space on the wall."
Smith's latest exhibition "Pinched," which opened earlier this month at Rhodes Contemporary Art in London, argues that our reaction to a stolen work is the real art.
"What is it about art theft that holds such magnetism over our current social and cultural landscape?" Smith asks. "Why does it turn audiences into installation pieces who have no idea that gathering in the void left by a famous theft is the true work of art?"
The exhibition is inspired by 17 famous art heists, including the thefts of Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Woman, Banksy's Trolley Hunters, Damien Hirst's Pyronin Y and Oleoylsarcosine, Edvard Munch's The Scream, and da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
We caught up with the artist to discuss the exhibition, censorship, the role of art in society, and, of course, art heists.
Where did the idea for this body of work come from?
I've always been fascinated by art history. A previous show of mine, "Priceless," was a commentary on the results of auctions in the art world, particularly the selling of a Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi, which sold in 2017 for $450 million. I kind of woke up in the morning and thought, “Shit, how can you even get your head around that amount of money?”
So I recreated the artwork making an exact scan of the original and divided it into over 500 color swatches. Then I just got obsessed with the volume that we attach to these works, because, you know, it's just a canvas with paint on it until somebody does something with it.
Then I started to look into what happens to the value of an artwork when it gets stolen. Whoever steals the work can’t sell it for the actual value in the mainstream art market, but when it goes into the black market it becomes incredibly hot. So every piece in this show is based on a work that has been stolen and the elements in the text commentate on the way it was stolen.
What is it about art heists that interests you?
Most things become more interesting once we’ve lost them. An umbrella left on the tube takes on far greater value once the realization of its absence is noted, particularly in the presence of clouds.
Objects take on greater significance, not because of their intrinsic worth or value, but because of the possibilities their absence presents. The same is true in the art world. The perceived cultural and financial value of a stolen artwork changes, often dramatically, once something so recognizable is "pinched."
Reports about art crime tend to glamorize the activity, often highlighting the monetary value loss and negating to factor in the vast cultural losses, which carry a far greater impact on society. Each piece lost represents a partial loss of our heritage.
My fascination is not with the artworks themselves, but the stories behind the thefts. What is the motivation? Why that piece? And how does the theft influence the artwork’s place in our current cultural landscape? "Pinched" explores the stories behind the stolen art.
How did you first start making pieces in this way?
I spent 11 years working as a commercial interior designer. In that job, I had to use all these little color swatches, and I would play with them on my desk and make patterns with them. Then, one day back in 2014, I decided to challenge myself and recreate [Andy] Warhol’s Marilyn [Monroe] pieces using color chips. I put those pieces into shows and they all sold. And then it all just kind of snowballed from there.
After that, I started to print my own color swatches and add a text element to them where you would previously have the color reference underneath. So as you read through it, there would be a narrative which either complemented or subverted the image.
In some artworks [in the exhibition], the text is the date of the actual theft. I see this as a bookmark in the artwork's history, whether it was recovered or remains lost. I like to think that viewers who do not know the context of the date marked in the work will do their own research and discover the significance of the date and the story of the theft. In other works, there is a text narrative which describes the actual story of the theft as reported at the time.
Why do you choose to recreate a pixelated version of these paintings?
I've always had a fascination with deconstructed images, posing the question, "How much visual information do we need to recognize and make sense of something?"
Pixelization is a form of censorship we are all familiar with. I felt it marries nicely with artworks which are stolen and removed from our grasp. Details are lost and replaced with hazy memories and digital copies. Often we are left with blurry CCTV images of the theft taking place, which, when zoomed into to identify the subject, provide only a few anonymous pixels to investigate.
And what’s next for you?
My next show is all about the way we consume art in museums. The change from not being allowed cameras back in the ’90s and early 2000s to the rise of the camera phone, I noticed a change in the way museum visitors interact with art. The viewer's experience now drastically differs to the experience intended by the artist. Noticing this altered interaction, I hope to promote discussion about the pros and cons of this new relationship. As any new process emerges, a moment is required to consider its best application.
At the end of the year, I’ll also be doing a special installation at Art Basel Miami.
Nick Smith's "Pinched" is on now at London's Rhodes Contemporary Art and runs until June 1.
Rhodes Contemporary Art 42 New Compton Street London WC2H 8DA