Geoffry Smalley’s work is rooted in early-19th-century American painting, deriving specific scenes and techniques from historical canvases and the Hudson River School. In 1836, painter Thomas Cole completed his five-part series The Course of Empire. The series documents Cole’s vision for the birth, life, and death of western civilization, from the pastoral to the desolate. Cole had a calculated optimism for life and renewal, but also a deep pessimism that civilized humanity would cyclically repeat its errors. The final painting in the series, The Course of Empire: Desolation, depicts the ruins of a once-great Greco-Roman city, complete with overgrown and decaying pillars, and a landscape returning to its initially wild state.
With his painting The Course of Empire: Rebuild (2012), Smalley incorporates a printed image of Cole’s Desolation and augments the composition to include a contemporary sports stadium in the process of construction—a surprisingly fitting juxtaposition that dovetails with the grandeur of Cole’s landscape. Smalley also continues Cole’s implicit critique of civilization, but with a particularly contemporary spirit and an adept sense of humor that focuses his painterly skill on America’s obsession with spectator sports and the trappings that go along with professional sports culture.
Smalley explains his interest in American team-sports culture and stadiums in terms of the architectural features of the urban landscape: “The games that professionals play are staged in architectural wonders only found in urban centers. The modern sports stadia are ‘homes,’ cathedrals to their sport, icons of urban planning, and big-time money makers. […] The stadia are visible signs of bustling urban development and activity, in spite of the fact that they sit idle for half a year, every year. After the crowds disperse and fireworks fade, we are left with grand sporting vistas, quiet pilgrimage sites for dedicated and decorated masses.” In Dome at the Old Mill (2014), also an appropriated and altered image, Smalley breaks time apart by incorporating a past and a present into a bizarre science-fictive potential future; the addition of an enormous sports arena, like an alien craft, into the background of this idyllic natural scene is obvious but not intrusive. Smalley’s gentle use of matching colors and atmospheric tones lends the composition a blended and synchronistic completeness.
In Early Morning at Cold Spring, Across Home Run Cove (2014), a solitary figure stands in awe of the early-morning glow that seems to emanate from a stadium. Smalley captures the wondrousness of the great American landscape that inspired the Hudson River School, and projects the equally fascinating admiration Americans languish upon competitive sports. There is something eerie in Smalley’s paintings, though. The placement of the spectacular, space-craft-like architectures makes a critical comment on the current and growing distance between contemporary culture and nature.
Another image, Cowboys Caravan, humorously unites two Western frontier cowboys and the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys by adorning these two once-rugged figures with the Cowboys’ brand logos, gear, and an odd star-logo-shaped hat. Where are these two men off to? The pregame cookout, or to find land for a new homestead? Of note, too, is the small slice of stadium Smalley has painted into the left-most section of the painting. Smalley’s work makes pertinent critiques and observations on the spectacle-based culture surrounding American sports.
Geoffry Smalley’s work ranges from paintings on various appropriated sources—books, magazines, printouts, catalogs—to sketches of contemporary athletes with hybridized equipment that combines medieval armor and modern sports gear. He also makes sculptures and installations. In his oeuvre, there is always an elegance that lends gravitas to even the most comical work. The fine details in his work are a great strength—the sophisticated and seamless blending of past and present with great fluidity, which in turn reveals slowly, with time and careful looking.
Geoffry Smalley is an artist living and working in Chicago, IL. Smalley has an MFA degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago, IL. His work has been shown in solo and group presentations throughout Illinois and the Great Lakes region.