Leslie Smith III's new painting exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (through Sept. 1) is called "I Dream Too Much," but it's clear that the UW-Madison art instructor isn't asleep in the traditional sense. Like many of his paintings, these recently created works use abstract imagery to explore anguish, anxiety and other byproducts of trauma.
Located near the entrance of the museum's State Street Gallery, the title work begins a narrative that snakes through the exhibition. On a square linen canvas, Smith has placed several thick, intersecting lines that are reminiscent of wishbones or tree branches. The background is navy with bursts of a lighter blue, which may make you feel like you're floating through space or exploring the lonely depths of the ocean. Over the top is a gauzy layer of white oil paint, which parts like curtains in the center of the canvas, inviting you into Smith's inner world.
The gauzy curtains appear in several other paintings, including Morning After. But in this work, they are a bright reddish orange that's almost painful to look at. In fact, everything in this work is a variation of that color. The limited palette gives the piece a certain flatness, but Smith's carefully chosen shapes lend the illusion of volume. The tension between 2D and 3D is palpable.
Smith introduces a different type of tension in You First. Here, he considers viewers' desire to see human figures in works of art. At first, the painting looks like a set of shapes featuring the same bright-red hue as Morning After; there's a box adorned with a sphere and a rectangular figure that looks a bit like a cheese grater. But within seconds, the dark spirals atop these shapes may start to look like unkempt hairdos. The sphere starts resembling a large nose, and the painting soon feels like an expression of a human experience, which invites a set of emotional responses a truly abstract image typically wouldn't.
The bright-red boxes also appear in the show's largest painting, Sticks, Stones or Drones, where they are shattered by the branch-like figures of I Dream Too Much. These sticks hurtle through the air like javelins as a box descends toward the bottom of the canvas. The clouds behind it are gray, and several are composed of smaller squares, as if they're on a pixelated computer screen.
The violence that transpires on Sticks is powerful, but the violence suggested by Night Baptism feels even more intense. The brushstrokes of the glossy black background seem to flow downward vertically, as if headed away from the heavens. A matte black figure emerges from this shiny darkness. It doesn't look like a human at first, but once again, this is likely to change. A circular area of the figure starts to look like a head, and the curved area below it shoulders. The brushstrokes inside the head contrast those of the background. Many are squiggles and swirls, suggesting spiritual chaos within.