Few paintings better exemplify Jeffrey Smart’s search for beauty in the everyday than this study of two petrol bowsers set against a bare concrete wall. As the title suggests, Study for The Petrol Station holds no promise of hidden depths or secret meanings. It’s the unassuming nature of the image that makes us want to study it more intently. ‘Why,’ we ask, ‘would an artist choose to paint a petrol station rather than, say, a sublime landscape or a magnificent building?’
One obvious answer is that everybody paints landscapes and buildings, and Smart had no wish to join the crowd. He would not, however, have explained his choice of subject in this manner. Smart was not concerned with simply avoiding a conventional theme or surprising viewers with his originality. If he chose to depict a petrol station it was because he felt it had the makings of an excellent picture.
We need to remember that Smart never set out to capture an accurate, quasi-photographic record of a found motif. Once he had a basic idea he would get to work on the composition, adding and subtracting material to suit his purposes. In Study for The Petrol Station the grey column divides the picture plane in a way that is reminiscent of the classical device called the ‘golden rectangle.’ Although the measurements are not precise, the effect is the same, imbuing the piece with a pleasing – albeit subliminal – sense of proportion.
The more closely we look at this work, the more we realise that nothing is left to chance. One may draw a diagonal across the picture from left to right that touches on the head of a man in overalls, barely grazes the corner of the first bowser, then ascends to the part of the pole bisected by a purplish shadow.
Bring down a line from the top left corner where the wall meets the edge of the canvas, and it will touch the right-hand corner of the same bowser, then the top of a black-lidded, orange container, before it reaches the other edge. This might be pure coincidence, but knowing Smart’s fastidious habits in the studio, it’s unlikely. With almost all his works one might draw lines at will and discover a mass of carefully plotted geometry.
He has concealed the complexities of the composition by making the picture look like a snapshot that cuts off the right-hand side of the second bowser. By avoiding an obvious symmetry, he imbues the work with a deceptive casualness.
If anything disturbs the ordinariness of this scene it’s the strangeness of the pumps, which look like robots from a B-grade science fiction film, all sharp angles, flat planes, and Pop Art colours. The russet-coloured hoses twist and coil like tentacles, adding a mock-organic dimension to a scene composed largely of steel, glass and concrete. We can’t rule out a suspicion that the banded bowsers are satires on hard-edged abstraction - a favoured avant-garde artform of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Smart’s paintings are full of sly in-jokes about the art he admires or disdains.
There are a surprising number of works in which artists celebrate petrol stations, but only a few that have become famous. One thinks of Edward Hopper’s Gas 1940, a twilight scene of three lonely red bowsers facing a dense green forest. It looks like a slice of life but is a composite of several different gas stations Hopper had sketched. Ed Ruscha’s deadpan photo book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations 1963, has become a Pop classic, a first edition now selling for many thousands of dollars.
Smart’s Petrol Station lies somewhere between Hopper and Ruscha. His style of painting belongs to the same family as Hopper’s low-key, suggestive realism but his motif is more in line with the late modernist structures photographed by the younger artist. All three cases work in a similar way, inviting us to pause and contemplate a scene that hardly makes a dent in our consciousness, even though we might spend our lives visiting petrol stations.
Such structures are classic ‘non-spaces’, designed for peak efficiency rather than aesthetic appeal, with the main idea being to get customers in and out as quickly as possible. Nobody lingers at a petrol station because of its attractive ambience.
The barren functionality of the petrol station has acted as a challenge to Smart, who believed the most unlikely structures might be found to be full of visual interest if only we took the time to examine them properly. In this picture one can sense his personal pleasure in painting the stained concrete wall in the background as it is drenched in sunlight, bringing out small nuances of texture and tone. Few painters have worked so hard to find a poetic dimension from this much-maligned material, but Smart does make one concession to more orthodox tastes. The glimpse of blue sky and the palm tree at the top of the canvas (that appears in at least two other works) reassures us that amidst all that concrete and metal, nature is never very far away.
John McDonald is the author of Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the ‘70s and ‘80s. He writes a weekly art column for the Sydney Morning Herald and a weekly film column for the Australian Financial Review.