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Critical eye: Why is Smit so popular but loathed

26 July 2016 - 10:27 By Mary Corrigall

Lionel Smit's work sells for a small fortune - a bronze bust can go for R780,000 and his shows often sell out with the red dots gathering before his openings. He can't make the work fast enough. This should make him our most celebrated art star, yet he flies under the radar. No one who is serious about art can fathom Smit's success. Or at least few want to face up to its implications - he could be regarded as a latter-day Tretchikoff.His recent exhibition, New Release, at the Everard Read Gallery is a good example of how Smit makes art about only one subject. A bust of a Cape Malay woman is reproduced in every way possible. She appears in every work, with her plump lips and short ponytail defining her features. Smit can't seem to get enough of her; nor can art buyers.The sculptures are probably more successful than the drawings, which look illustrative. Aged and battered looking, the cast busts often appear like artefacts from another time.There's little about Smit's work that connects it to current trends in art. He doesn't communicate anything in particular; there are no layers. It is what it is and that appears to be part of its appeal.South African buyers apparently prize Smit's predictability. Perhaps he seems reliable and accessible in the face of an onslaught of contemporary work at art fairs and in new galleries popping up everywhere.Or perhaps, conversely, Smit is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the vacuous excesses of our inflated local art scene. The moneyed set is shelling out for all sorts of art, some of it quite dubious and over-priced.Or is the universality of Smit's subject-matter the appeal? Yet the racial and gender stereotyping that inform his renderings make it hard to accept this figure as universal."She is neither white nor black," observed the artist in an interview. Perhaps the inane veneer of his work belies a dream for a post-race society - populated by pretty young women of indeterminate races.Whatever you may think of Smit's art; don't tell anyone...

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