By Michelle Trauring
Within minutes of speaking with Lucien Smith, this much is clear: the down-to-earth artist never intended to become a star in the New York City art world.
But in 2014, that is precisely what happened.
In one year alone, his paintings fetched a total $3.7 million at auction. The New York Times had already named him a “wunderkind,” and Vogue followed suit. He snared a solo show at none other than Skarstedt on the Upper East Side, gave a
TEDx talk and, subsequently, had a public falling out with his father.
Smith was just 25 years old — and he had already had enough. So, he packed up and moved to Montauk.
“I’ve been here for five years, so it’s kind of just home now. It doesn’t really even feel like I’m escaping, you know what I mean?” Smith said during a recent telephone interview. “I guess my original intention was to come out here and not get so distracted by stuff in the city, and it definitely has its pros and cons, but yeah, it’s just changed a lot of things for me — and for better, I think.”
What has come next is far from a reinvention, or even a rebirth, he said. It feels more like an organic continuation of his path, which has most recently led him to the newest exhibition at the Parrish Art Museum — the fourth iteration of “Artists Choose Artists” — as one of the seven jurors who each selected two artists to exhibit alongside them.
“‘Artists Choose Artists’ is one of the most rewarding exhibition projects of the Parrish Art Museum,” Corinne Erni, Parrish’s senior curator of ArtsReach and Special Projects, said in a statement. “It sparks conversations and exchanges that normally don’t happen among established and emerging artists, and the Parrish continues its commitment to be a nurturing hub for artists in our East End community.”
Of 300 online submissions and studio visits, jurors Alexis Rockman and Allan Wexler selected Irina Alimanestianu and Ronald Reed, and Margaret Garrett and Priscilla Heine, respectively. Lillian Ball chose Scott Bluedorn and Janet Culbertson, and Valerie Jaudon picked Janet Goleas and Bastienne Schmidt.
For Jill Moser, Mary Boochever and Dan Welden set themselves apart, and for Ralph Gibson, his eye gravitated toward Thomas Hoepker and Tria Giovan.
“I’m thrilled,” Giovan said of being selected for the show by Gibson. “He’s such an incredible photographer with such a long and gorgeous legacy. He’s been working for so many years and so well respected. His work is beautiful, so I’m thrilled.”
The Sag Harbor-based photographer will exhibit five images from her body of work that captured the subtleties and complexities of day-to-day life in Cuba during the economic depression of the Special Period. From 1990 to 1996, she visited Cuba once every five months and, for the following four weeks, traveled the country, shooting over 25,000 images cumulatively.
“It’s this historical capsule,” she said. “It encapsulates a period in Cuba’s history that is pretty specific, and a lot of the visual elements that are in the images are gone. Certainly the ephemera of the revolution and the people are gone, or they’re grown up, or they’ve passed on. So it does, to me, have a real historical reverence and relevance.”
From a makeshift beauty salon on a back porch to 13 people piled into a vintage car, each scene is a study in creative defiance, and the resilience of the human spirit amid oppression. In 2017, Giovan returned to Cuba for the first time in almost 20 years — travel restrictions having been lifted at the time, though now reversed. There was an energy level in the streets, she said, an excitement and a palpable hopefulness, not to mention cruise ships coming into Old Havana.
“I thought there would be a lot of changes and development, and there certainly was, but there was also a feeling of a return and a familiarity and a comfortableness,” she said. “I think people seemed excited and hopeful, and I think that is not the case now. I had a very good friend who went back very recently, and she said people are disheartened and just bummed out. We’ll see what happens. Bottom line is, they’ve gotten through a lot worse and they’re incredibly resilient, and they’ll make it through this, too.”
For Smith, he opted to select artists Anne Seelbach and Mark William Wilson as his picks for this exhibition, and his studio visit with the latter perhaps indirectly influenced Smith’s own work on view in the exhibition: a trio of “Flood” paintings created during a residency at The Watermill Center that — at 5-feet-by-6-feet each — mark his return to large-scale work.
“I don’t really have a studio out here — I try to really minimize my operation and my carbon footprint — so it was a great opportunity to have a space and get used to working in the studio again and put all these ideas that I had into motion,” he said. “I have a little studio in my house where I do some small paintings more for leisure, but these are the first larger-scale paintings that I’ve made in a while, and that’s really because I had that facility to do that. I’m going to continue making works like that in future. I’m thinking about opening up a studio where I can do that out here.
“If anything, if I opened up a studio, it might be something where I would be sharing it with other artists, or it would be like a shared space,” he said, “maybe something similar to what The Watermill is doing with their program.”
Both the Watermill residency and the concept behind “Artists Choose Artists” have inspired more than a potential studio space. They’ve shed light on his newest venture, Serve the People, a digital platform for artists to sell their work at a time when mega-galleries are dominating the art market, determining who can be shown and where.
Smith knows this world intimately, he said, and is not only ready to see a change, but to usher it in.
“It was definitely an experience and definitely something that, today, I’m still looking back on and trying to take from it as much positivity as I can,” he said. “The whole thing spawned where I am now, and really inspired me to want to work with younger artists in similar situations, and artists that aren’t in similar situations, but just overall to maybe influence or create an environment where artists aren’t so susceptible to that kind of volatility.
“I wouldn’t change anything about that,” he continued. “For me, it was my introduction into ‘the art world,’ and it definitely has inspired me regardless of the outcome.”
“Artists Choose Artists” runs through February 23 at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. “The Artist’s View” a gallery talk featuring Ralph Gibson, Tria Giovan and Thomas Hoepker, will take place on Friday, November 22, at 6 p.m., followed by Janet Goleas, Priscilla Heine and Bastienne Schmidt on December 13; Irina Alimanestianu, Scott Bluedorn and Janet Culbertson on January 10; Margaret Garrett, Ronald Reed and Mark Willliam Wilson on January 24; and Mary Boochever, Anne Seelbach and Dan Welden on February 21. For details, call 631-283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.