'Oh no, I have the world's most boring name!' The show of artists called Smith

A new exhibition unites artist with a common surname. We sent a Smith of our own along – to see what else Patti, Paul, Bob and Roberta have in common

Can you spot a Smith? Would you like to see one? Maybe you are one – I am. Having the most common surname in the western world makes you a member of a pretty big club. But what kind of art do Smiths create? That’s the focus of a new exhibition that brings together more than 30 creatives – Sir Paul Smith, Patti Smith, Bob and Roberta Smith and more – all united by their surname.

So what’s it like being an artist called Smith? Emily Mae Smith, whose work is in the show, explains: “Growing up in a world where the persona of the artist has been made so very important – think of Picasso – I thought: ‘I’m never going to be successful because I have the most boring name in the world! This is never going to work for me … being an artist named Smith is a terrible thing.’

“I have included my middle name ever since I was little because it was the only way I could be differentiated,” she says. “But when Marlborough galleries contacted me about the show, I started laughing because being called Smith has suddenly become the opposite of a terrible thing in a very funny, cute way.”

A still from Om by John Smith, 1986.
‘I’m frequently asked if John Smith is my real name’ … A still from Om by John Smith (real name), 1986. Photograph: Courtesy of The Artist and Kate MacGarry, London.

John Smith, a film-maker, says his name has shaped his work: “I never quite forgave my parents for giving me this name. But as an artist it probably has had quite an impact on the ideas explored in my work.

“Because it’s always been at the back of my mind that I have this kind of embarrassing name, my work revolves around the everyday, and it also plays with notions of truth and lies,” he says. “I’m quite frequently asked if John Smith is my real name.”

He has chosen to show a video work, Om, where the viewer sees someone who appears to be a Buddhist monk but then reveals himself to be someone unexpected.

Poster boys … Adidas Stan Smith shoes.
Poster boys … Adidas Stan Smith shoes. Photograph: Marlborough

Pascal Spengemann, director of Marlborough’s New York gallery, tells me how the show came about. “The artist Maurizio Cattelan told us he’d always wanted to do an exhibition called The Smiths, that has everybody who’s a Smith in it. Right away, I said: ‘we’ll do it.’

“It’s like a test of curatorial practice. The show will either look great or like a total hotchpotch The only condition is the name, so it’s a kind of non-selection selection. The premise is a way to circumvent or short-circuit choice; it is a great methodology of conceptual art but what the show is remains to be seen, which is exciting and maybe a little nerve-racking.”

Its democracy appeals to the artists involved. “As a younger artist, I’m just excited about the proximity to the bigger names,” says Emily Mae. “To have your work in hung with other artists whose work you respect is really important.

“A lot of group shows today, someone has just said: ‘hey, here’s some successful people, we’re gonna put them together’, so we might as well actually just be really plain about it. Let’s be plain and Smith about it. There’s a directness to being called Smith, and there’s a directness to saying: ‘Hey, this is what the show is.’”

John agrees. “It’s an equaliser, isn’t it? I really like that as an idea, mixing together people who just happen to be called Smith.”

Bob and Roberta Smith.
Exhibiting his political placards … Bob and Roberta Smith. Photograph: Mark Thomas/Rex/Shutterstock

The show includes a broad range of media: ink drawings, oil paintings, watercolours, sculpture and video. Bob and Roberta Smith presents a collection of placards entitled Make Your Own Damn Art – a series of statements in defence of arts education that were read aloud to Michael Gove when he threatened to remove arts from the core curriculum; Patti Smith’s contribution is a drawing with text. There’s no live performance art though, presumably a reformation of the band the Smiths for the show was out of the question. But were they an influence?

Spengemann laughs. “[The show] is not about the band, but I think that was the concept behind their name? The name is generic, on some level, and this is about people who are unusual who are bringing this unusual perspective to bear on culture and are themselves called the most mundane thing. Yes, I guess it couldn’t exist without the band.”

The show, however, takes its markers from pretty much any Smith you can think of. Flyers feature a pair of Stan Smiths. I hope they’ve got bowls of Smiths crisps at the opening.

Designer Paul Smith said: “I feel very privileged to have been selected from a very large pool of Smiths to feature in the exhibition. Who knew us Smiths were such a talented bunch?”


Mat Smith

The GuardianTramp

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