• Gemma Smith

Starkwhite is delighted to present Thin Air, Australian artist Gemma Smith’s first solo exhibition at the gallery and the beginning of an ongoing relationship with Starkwhite.

Gemma Smith’s painting has presented colourful compositions of geometrical shapes and crystalline forms, bold and gesturally painted surfaces that create a dialogue between colour, form, and surface. Thin Air explores Smith’s experimentation with the language of painting, including both very pale or almost black art works exhibited alongside her characteristic gestural works.

At the heart of Gemma Smith’s studio practice is process and discipline. Structure gives each body of work its distinctive formal language, but is matched by an intention to retain a practice that remains exploratory and open. Included in the exhibition are two Shadow Paintings and two translucent layered works, both part of a decade long investigation exploring the blocking, translucency, and opacity of paint. Smith’s practice is labour intensive – the layered works are returned to again and again, one semi-transparent layer added each day, sometimes wiped away if it is deemed to be not working. Smith’s labour and physicality become central to our encounter with and understanding of her practice. The Shadow Paintings capture the extent of her arm’s reach across the canvas, their open, loose ribbons of colour offering evidence of how the paint was pulled across the surface. These works incorporate layering and overpainting, revising, obscuring, and reinventing relationships across the canvas. Here overpainting, or erasure, becomes an act of creation.

In 2017 Smith initiated a body of work in very pale tones, offering only a suggestion of colour across the canvas. With delicately hued surfaces that further the artist’s ongoing exploration of the perception of volume and depth through colour, the Threshold paintings offer an airy, purified world of painting. At first glance these paintings appear white, but closer looking reveals they are ever so gently tinted by soft and ambiguous clouds of colour - a mesmerising hint of soft petal-pink, wispy green, or pale straw. The slow and considered looking that these nuanced paintings provoke is matched by the process of their creation. Smith adds the smallest hint of colour to vast amounts of titanium white, blending at the intersection of each colour while eliminating marks from the surface. She repeats this over six or more layers, adjusting the quantities of pigment with each coat so as to find compositional balance.

Presented in the gallery also is Field (2020), a painting that initially seems inky black and the polar opposite of Smith’s pale and delicately hued expanses. Yet Field is rich with colour, composed from five distinct highly pigmented paints. Careful inspection reveals raw umber, cool blue, maroon and other tones emerging from the dark. Field has been made with a similar methodology to the Threshold paintings, and like the Threshold works, is such a subtle and complex testing of colour and form.“It takes time and physical proximity to see them properly” Smith explains, a welcome antidote to a world growing tired of digitally mediated encounters.

Colour has been described as the abiding subject matter and content of Gemma Smith’s work. If it is true that looking is always active, not passive, what do we make of her paintings where nothing except the barest hint of colour exists? In as much as their delicate shifts in tone continue the artist’s ongoing exploration of pictorial depth they also seem to broach something more, something suggested in the series’ title. Thresholds are a penultimate moment or location. We can be on the threshold of rage or literally about to cross a physical structure marking the border of two spaces. Thresholds are points of beginning – places, moments, or metaphorical tipping points which once crossed cause something to occur or be manifest. And what of Smith’s pale, near white surfaces? There is an intense feeling of possibility and even of forbidden magic on the borders of things. Gemma Smith skilfully keeps us there, just as how her use of very pale or near black surfaces intensifies our perception of the colour she does employ, she suspends this penultimate moment keeping us on the threshold immersed in a visually and sensually mesmerising space.

Gemma Smith studied at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, between 1997 and 1999; and in 2004 at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.

Smith was born in Sydney and based there until 2004; in Brisbane from 2004 to 2012; and in Pittsburgh, United States, from 2012 to 2014. She currently lives and works in Sydney.

Opening hours

  • Tuesday - Friday 11am - 6pm
  • Saturday 11am - 3pm
  • or by appointment


  • 510 Karangahape Road
  • Auckland 1010