Light and Color in Contemporary Art: Phillip K. Smith, III’s Desert Mirages

By Katherine Uhlir

As part of Contemporary Alliance’s 2018 Logan Lecture series, Phillip K. Smith, III gave a talk at the Denver Art Museum on May 15. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Palm Springs, Smith wanted to escape the familiarity of the desert after high school. He landed at the Rhode Island School of Design where he studied architecture. But the desert pulled him back. With fresh eyes, the artist discovered a newfound appreciation for the desert, how light transforms the colors of the landscape and sky. He channels the desert’s light and color in contemporary art, using the environment to inform his works. During his lecture, he touched on recent installations, the thought process behind his work, and new projects on the horizon.

Smith’s light exploration began with acrylic sculptures. They showcase the purity and charm of the interplay between light and color, providing a pure gradient of light immersed in color. The artist insists material is unimportant. Or, rather, it matters only in the essence of the work, in the light and the color. Smaller scale sculptures turned into large-scale installations. As the artist notes, scale never posed a problem. In a way, Smith’s background in architecture prodded him toward larger works inspired by the scale of buildings.

LIght and Color In Contemporary Art Phillip K Smith III Lecture denver colorado may 2018

Phillip K. Smith, III discussing Lucid Stead (2013) during his 2018 Logan Lecture. Photo by Brandon Vargas.

When referring to a piece of land he purchased in Joshua Tree, he jokes: “When I bought the property, it came with this beautiful new home.” The “beautiful new home” was a decrepit homestead. Smith would eventually convert the "beautiful new home" into his breakthrough work, Lucid Stead (2013). He replaced every other board with a mirrored steel surface. The result alters the materiality of the homestead. The mirrored surfaces reflect the desert and the light in a distorted, contemplative manner. Thus, the finished work creates impossible dynamics between the sky and land. At the same time, it generates realistic, but artificial horizons. Despite the three-hour drive from L.A., Lucid Stead started gaining attention on social media and earned Smith a commission at Coachella, Reflection Field (2014), the following year.

With his second Coachella commission, Portals (2016), Smith began to make a shift from highlighting human interaction with nature to highlighting human interaction with nature and with each other. Enclosed by a circle of Smith’s famous polished steel rods, the 85-foot diameter pavilion provides shade and seats for festival attendees, creating an oasis from the oppressive heat and crowds.

Always working with his environment, Smith’s Portals changes when the sun sets: “As with everything at Coachella.” The stark white of the structure mixes with the reflected natural and human world during the day. But, at night, the installation becomes drenched in the color emanating from the illuminated portals that line the walls. Each portal provides a calm, if bright, solace, a moment alone with light. The natural reflection of the day becomes the artificial project of the night.

Smith wrapped up the lecture with a few notes about his most recent installation. A collaboration with fashion brand COS, Open Sky (2018), showed at Milan’s Salon del Mobile in the courtyard of Palazzo Isimbardi. A 16th-century Italian Palace is a world away from the open spaces of California’s desert. Although he has branched out from the desert, Smith’s art reflects a keen understanding of landscape and light. He creates works that comment, enhance, and interact with the environment.

Image at top: Lucid Stead (2013)