Surrealism Meets the Golden Age in David Michael Smith’s Botanical Portraits

Coming soon to San Francisco’s Scott Richards Contemporary Art is a new suite of oil paintings by David Michael Smith. Called “Florilegium,” the exhibition takes its title from the Latin name of a kind of botanical treatise, meaning “a gathering of flowers.” Floral imagery features prominently in the paintings, with figures surrounded, covered, and marked by blossoms.

In Girl with Ermine (2013), a young woman with fiery red hair stares at the viewer from the picture. She is nude except for a light, silken hat, which seems to expand and furl as the petals of a white flower. In her right arm she cradles an ermine, a kind of stoat prized for its luxurious white fur, used in royal coronation cloaks and heraldic imagery. The girl’s pale skin is tattooed or imprinted with stylized flowers over her left breast, around which butterflies flit up her chest, shoulder, and neck. Smith writes of the painting, “Symbolic elements of the Golden Age of Dutch painting such as tulips and china are repurposed here in a way that is surreal and invites interpretation. The interaction between the human subject and the animal references famous portraits of women with animals; most notably, da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, but also those by Holbein and Tiepolo.” Da Vinci’s painting has long been an inspiration for other artists as well.

In Red & White (2014), the porcelain skin of a young girl is echoed by the folded petals of a carnation in oversized depiction behind her. The flower often carries connotations of love and luck, but the variegated red and white variety can mean a love that is in some way prevented from fulfillment. The young girl’s eyes are rimmed with red, and her look is longing. This red-and-white motif is carried in other paintings as well, such as White Horse (2013), which depicts a young man with silver hair and white skin. His shoulder is tattooed with a red bough, and behind him stands an enormous white horse. Most of its body is not shown, but its muscular muzzle, next to his head, mimics the highlights of his own white skin.

“My paintings and drawings are firmly based in classical rendering but incorporate elements of surrealism and the fantastic,” says Smith. “This arises from my desire to connect with the viewer on both a visual and emotional level.” The most colorful and fantastical of his paintings in “Florilegium” is To What Purpose, April? (2014). It shows a woman who is not only marked with flowers—they bloom off of her body, along with feathery white butterflies or moths. Smith’s appropriation of pre-modernist narrative schemes appears radically new as we remember how to explore symbolic imagery.

—Stephen Dillon

Florilegium” is on view at Scott Richards Contemporary Art, San Francisco, Jan. 8–31, 2015.

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