Review: ‘reENLIGHTENMENT’ exhibition by Peter James Smith at Gallery 101, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 18th March – 4th April 2009


Peter James Smith. 'reENLIGHTENMENT' installation view 2009

Peter James Smith. 'reENLIGHTENMENT' installation view 2009


Peter James Smith (New Zealand, b. 1954)
reENLIGHTENMENT installation views



“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”1

“Thus the claim is that texts themselves can actually be intrinsically ‘genuine’, but that authenticity is a ‘social construct’. In other words, a certain kind of authenticity is created through the interaction of the users, situations and the texts.”2



Peter James Smith links the culture of science and of human experience, bringing together mathematics and the power of nature in realist imagery that is balanced by strong mark making and text. Redolent still life and landscape images juxtapose with astronomical, poetic and historical observations in the painted images. Handwritten citations, notes, jottings, diagrams and erasures float on the loosely painted surfaces of stretched linen, paper collage and found pieces which bring a Beuysian sense of the charismatic object. A sunset, a violin, a book of verse, an installation of old bells or delicate Jasperware porcelain provide a resonant foil for the artist and viewer – and create a space for the imagination, for mathematical wonder and contemplation.

“Beyond painting, in the current work there is a sense of history allowing us to privilege its objects, their collecting and their housing on walls, in vitrines, on shelves and on plinths. Like any true collector I am keen to bring them to an audience, to show them in a revelatory way. If they are inflected by hand markings it is to personalise the revelation. There are no plastic imitations: the Jasperware vases are authentic collected Wedgwood; the small Greek Pelike is indeed a c 300 BC vase; the Roman glass is a c 300 AD; the collected Wollemi pine needles are indeed from this prehistoric plant. These and other antiquities have a long museological tradition. The narratives of Wedgwood blue and white Jasperware designs are of Greek antiquity – the firing of the white clay over a cobalt blue base (in around) 1772 was a triumph of chemistry over alchemy. With these objects, it is not a postmodernist kitsch that is revealed, but rather the resuscitated fabric of authenticity. I am re-enlightened by their tactile physical presence that has a timeless beauty. To render such things as a painted image is to engage in a different act, with different rules referring to different histories.”

Peter James Smith, 2009. Notes from the exhibition catalogue.


Enlightenment, Romanticism, reason, authenticity, revelation.

I am a collector like Peter James Smith. I display my collection of early 20th century English vases. I have a collection of 300 ties that span from the 1930s to the 1970s. I have eight rare 1940s suits, those suits that Humphrey Bogart used to wear with the wide wide lapels that nearly reach the seam of the sleeve.

Rare, fragile, beautiful, genuine.

In this exhibition Smith appeals not to the genuineness of the objects but to the authenticity of the objects he displays: “There are no plastic imitations … With these objects, it is not a postmodernist kitsch that is revealed, but rather the resuscitated fabric of authenticity.” He wants to show these objects in a revelatory way, for us to once more appreciate their authenticity. To make order out of disorder. But then Smith wants to personalise this revelation and overlays the objects with texts that re-order the taxonomy through a reinscription that is both a de-territorialization and re-territorialization of meaning, a loss of original meaning and the production of new meanings. This is the faint silver flicker of re-enlightenment the artist seeks. It is above all authentication as individual spectacle, as social construct.

“Authenticity is an issue for us today because of a widespread sense that there is something inauthentic in the way we experience the modern world.”3

In some of the works this process is effective and in other works it falls flat on it’s proverbial, intertextual backside. The process works well in the less cerebral works. The use of black paint in Paradise Lost IV (below) is particularly effective as the re-inscription of paint invades and threatens the motifs of the classical figures with the text and cross reinforcing the idea of a lost paradise. Cathedral (2009, below) is also a stunning installation of different bells hung at various heights within a locked cabinet, complicit in their silence as they would not be inside a cathedral. For me this was probably the best piece in the show for its simplicity of thought, eloquence of execution and understanding of how the installation re-enlightens the viewers socially constructed authenticity in a revelatory way. No double marking is needed – a zen balance is proposed and achieved in the quietness of the viewers mind.

Other pieces are less successful. Amphora in grey teracotta Han Dynasty c 100BC (2008), the amphora inscribed with text sitting on a painted black video recorder is particularly unengaging and unappealing – there is no revelatory experience to be had here. The Greek Pileke (see below) inscribed with lines from John Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn seems an appropriate intervention but sometimes in this exhibition one just longs to appreciate the sanctity of the object, it’s presence, in silence without the personalising of the revelation by the hand of the artist. To see the object clearly for what it is.

The large installation reELIGHTENMENT (2009 below, and installation photo at top) falls into darkness. The use of the doors as metaphor is clumsy, book covers have been more successfully used by other artists and the black paint is heavy and oppressive. More interesting are some of the paintings, for example The slow dance of an astronomical twighlight (2009, below) where the poem of William Wordsworth

… a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns

illuminates the poetry of the painting, adding an insightful double meaning to the universal revelation. A vibration of spirit is present both in the landscape and the markings upon the landscape. Unfortunately all too often in this exhibition access to the sublime is denied. Appeals to neo-authenticity fall on deaf ears. The motifs of this exhibition are universal, archetypal but the elements that go to make up this exhibition are too many and lack focus. Sometimes in art less in more and this exhibition is a classic example of this fact. There are some interesting elements but overall the whole is not the sum of its parts.

As John Donne observed

“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated … No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”4

Our authentic place in the world, our spiritual space, our re-enlightenment needed to be better defined, more lucidly enunciated in this exhibition NOT IN CAPITAL LETTERS but in the quietness of our hearts.

Dr Marcus Bunyan


  1. Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” in Illuminations. English translation. London: Fontana, 1982, pp. 59-60
  2. Lee, W. “Authenticity revisited: text authenticity and learner authenticity,” in ELT Journal, 49(4). 1995, pp. 323-328 cited in Shomoossi, Nematullah and Ketabi, Saeed. “A Critical Look at the Concept of Authenticity,” in Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 2007, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 149-155 [Online] cited on 29th March, 2009 at http://e-flt.nus.edu.sg/v4n12007/shomoossi.pdf
  3. McClure, Christoper. The Concept of Authenticity in Charles Taylor and Martin Heidegger. [Online] cited on March 29th, 2009 (no longer available online)
  4. Donne, John. Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris. 1624.



Wedgwood Jasperware, Roman glass, Greek Pileke, books, doors, texts, paintings, bells, video, video machine, wooden boxes, black paint, crosses, albatross, Wollemi Pine needles, Paradise Lost, astronomy, linen, stars, photography, Chinese porcelain, collage, mathematical equations, mirrors, Amphora from the Han Dynasty, a violin, a sunset, a book of verse, notes, shelves, jottings, citations.

Notes to myself

  • Golden ratio
  • The archive
  • Topographical markings, inscriptions and decodings
  • The ‘nature’ of authenticity
  • The ‘voice’ of revelation
  • Re-possession of clarity and logic
  • Re-production of mystery, tenderness and love
  • Reverence for the object itself
  • Referentiality between image and text
  • The colour black: transcendent, the depths of the night sky but also the closing in of darkness at the end of days
  • Never one truth but many truths
  • Less is more

Many thankx to Gallery 101 for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.




Peter James Smith (New Zealand, b. 1954)
The slow dance of an astronomical twighlight


Peter James Smith. 'Paradise Lost IV' 2008


Peter James Smith (New Zealand, b. 1954)
Paradise Lost IV


Peter James Smith. 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' 2008


Peter James Smith (New Zealand, b. 1954)
Ode on a Grecian Urn


Peter James Smith. 'Cathedral' 2009


Peter James Smith (New Zealand, b. 1954)


Peter James Smith. 'reENLIGHTENMENT' 2009


Peter James Smith (New Zealand, b. 1954)



Gallery 101

This gallery is now closed.


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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