Mike Smalley at Helio Gallery

Helio Gallery endured a long pandemic closure and has just reopened with Mike Smalley’s new works.

The opening night of multi-media artist Mike Smalley’s solo show gave me the opportunity to talk with him about his past and present work, his latest inspirations, and what makes this exhibition a successful and radical representation of his “new” artistic direction.

The opening reception of Mike Smalley’s solo show, October 29, 2021 at Helio Gallery

After a four-decade long career as an art director in advertising, Smalley left the precision that was required in advertising for an artistic practice as an abstract artist. He is now able to create works organically and whimsically, measuring the caliber if his work predominantly by his level of enjoyment.

Smalley is most recognized for his abstract calligraphy that integrates disconnected fragments and forms. He explains that this current exhibition is very different, jokingly mentioning that many people who are familiar with his previous work were shocked and surprised to see what he had been up to during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Installation view of Mike Smalley’s solo show at Helio Gallery

Elements of nature have always held a fascination for Smalley, but it was through the isolation and lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic that he found a way to represent nature less figuratively in his art. These new works present sweeping landscapes, seascapes and mountain scenes, paving the way for elements of the natural world to personify emotions. He describes his method as one that incorporating binaries of storms and stillness while he humbly and casually refers to his process as “play”. He explained that creating his artwork is also “a learning procedure of the architecture of clouds, as there are a lot of dimensions to it, a lot of depth, and lots of anger”.

Installation view with (L-R) Mike Smalley, Shadowland #1, #2 & #3

Smalley stated that he is most interested in discovering how he can take abstracted elements from nature and then merge them with realistic ones, while combining them in his new style. For example, he sees expressive connections between rocks and water. The new work, he believes, presents a transformation built upon this discovery. Seascape #1, is an entirely abstract painting, composed with amorphous forms that he explored further in other works.

Mike Smalley, Seascape #1, archival pigment print, 22 x 22 inch

Smalley notes that the drastic change in his style came from the limited stimulation caused by pandemic life. Talking about his creative process, he admits that he looks down a lot at the ground and rocks as they are as interesting to him as the birds, the wildlife and the sky outside his window.

Smalley has an appreciation for portraying the more complicated side of nature. For example, he feels his best pieces in the exhibition are the ones that layer darkness and light, are spatially ambiguous, and have enough mystery. However, he notes that this can happen accidentally, at times even just leaving the paint to drip down the canvas as part of his process. While pointing at the middle section of Shadowland #2, Smalley elaborates, “I keep focusing in this one bit here and you don’t know whether it is a mountain, or sunlight. That is the sweet spot of the division of abstracted and natural reality.”

Mike Smalley in front of Shadowland #2, oil on canvas, 42 x 42 inch

Smalley says choosing the medium to work with depends on his mood, but that he particularly likes pastels as well as oil painting on large canvases. This exhibition is the first time he tried oil on paper.

Installation view with Skyline #2 (center)

In regards to the style and subject matter of his future work, Smalley says, “I’ve ordered canvases, so I have got about six weeks to decide what to do with them.” Fans of the artist will have to keep up, because Smalley doesn’t want to stick with doing one thing for too long. He’s already looking for what to springboard to next.

Text: Georgia Gardner

Photo: Cathy Liu

*Exhibition information: Mike Smalley solo exhibition, October 29 – November 21, 2021, Helio Gallery, 1256 Queen Street East, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Thurs   12 – 5pm, Fri 12 – 6 pm, Sat – Sun 12 – 4 pm.

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