Interview: Nick Smith on ‘Pinched’ and the theft of priceless art

Zoe Ettinger interviews artist Nick Smith ahead of his exhibition ‘Pinched’ at Rhodes Contemporary Art

Nick Smith’s upcoming exhibition Pinched is a commentary on the nature of art theft and the social transformation imposed on a work once stolen.

Famous works of art are more than objects—they take on a life of their own as part of our cultural narrative. To put a price on them seems absurd, yet those not protected by public museums can retain astronomical sums.

Smith’s previous exhibition Priceless examined the inconceivable numbers attached to the world’s most famous works of art. Their values rank in the hundreds of millions. Cultural significance aside, a painting is a unitary thing; it is singularly functional. It’s hard not to think of what those sums could do for humanitarian aid or environmental recovery.

Nick Smith, courtesy of Rhodes Contemporary Art

Smith explains what contributes to a piece becoming ‘priceless’: “Firstly, they’re not making any more of these artworks,” he says. “Da Vinci is not going to be painting any more of them so there’s a supply and demand factor.”

“Also, when the artwork gets into popular culture and is displayed in a museum, everybody takes ownership over it—it’s not owned by the few, but by the many.” The artwork is transfixed in our zeitgeist, removing it is like tearing a page from a history book. “I think it’s a sad thing when it ends up in the hands of a private collection; the value of the artwork is almost like a status symbol saying you own something this expensive.”

The prices these works sell for are simply unfathomable to normal people. “That’s kind of what I was trying to quantify with my last exhibition where Salvator Mundi by Da Vinci sold for 450 million dollars. I woke up in the morning thinking how much is that? I couldn’t even get my head around it.”

Nick Smith – Da Vinci – Mona Lisa 69 x 97cm, Pinched, Rhodes Contemporary Art

To try and understand this monumental sum, he remade the artwork as a collage of 500 individual colour swatches. Together they blur the piece, much like the CCTV footage of arts heists he viewed from museums’ security. Smith found that by delineating the piece, he could actually assign a value to each individual swatch. “I made the calculation that each one was worth about 850,000 dollars, which you can understand might be the price of a house, but when you add them all together it becomes absurd.”

Pieces take on even more historical and cultural significance once they are stolen. That’s what happened with the Mona Lisa after it was taken from the Louvre in 1911. Before she had her own venerated room in the museum, she was displayed amongst other artworks. The morning it was stolen, they shut the gallery and then the following day, after a photograph had been released in the press of an empty space on the wall, with just two corners of artworks on either side, there was a queue outside the Louvre for the first time ever. “People congregate around loss” Smith says, “It is kind of grotesque to go and see—like slowing down on the motorway to look at a car accident.” People always seem to want what they can’t have.

Nick Smith – Da Vinci – Madonna & the Yarnwinder 69 x 93.5cm,
Pinched, Rhodes Contemporary Art

Pinched analyzes the meaning of an artwork to the artist and to a thief. To the thief, it’s just a commodity, but to the artist, it is an expression of an idea, a bloody heart on a page. When one of Lucien Freud’s most famous works, a painting of his friend Francis Bacon, was stolen from the Tate, he put out wanted posters for its return. Ironically, people stole the posters and sold them. However, the artwork itself was never recovered. This is because works like Freud’s, once stolen, become virtually impossible to resell. Their status is too great and they become tools in the underground— collateral in drug deals or an insurance policy for a future arrest. The Italian mafia is famous for doing so. However, sadly, the works are often irreparably damaged in the process, handled by those who view it only for its monetary value and not its cultural vitality.

The biggest art heist in history was in Boston in 1990 at the Isabella Gardner Museum. Before the advancement in security technology, it was far easier to get away with such crimes. Two men tricked the museum security and were able to steal a Rembrandt and a Vermeer. 29 years later, the pieces still haven’t been returned. However, through the miracle of modern technology, you can still see the piece at the museum. If you walk by the wall where it once hung, placing an iPad in front of the empty frame, the piece will reappear on the screen. It seems a sad eulogy, viewing it this way, but it highlights that what is lost can never truly be recovered.

Nick Smith – Rembrandt – Storm on the sea of Galilee 118 x 144cm,
Pinched, Rhodes Contemporary Art

Vermeer’s ‘The Concert’ is the flagship piece of Smith’s Pinched exhibition. “The piece happens to have two artworks on the back wall of the painting. I’ve removed these artworks from the frame then had a screen print made of the work so it’s a little bit like inception. It’s a commentary and a reflection on the actual current status in the museum where they just display these empty frames.” Unlike other artists, mainly focused on their own message, Smith rather seeks a dialogue. He’s part of a burgeoning movement known as Reflectionism, where artists talk about what is currently going on in the art world.

Nick Smith – Vermeer – The Concert (screen print) 40 x 46cm,
Pinched, Rhodes Contemporary Art

A conversation about today’s art world wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Banksy. Last October, he shredded his famous piece ‘Girl with Balloon’ at Sotheby’s auction. Smith gave his take: “I think what he did was very clever, zeitgeisty. It’s a commentary on how we perceive value. That artwork has gone up in value now because it has a story behind it—when someone buys an artwork they want to be able to talk about it. Girl with Balloon has now gone into the history book whereas if that hadn’t happened, it just would have been another Banksy.” I envision a future in which Smith does something similar, but the inception headache might just be too great.

Nick Smith’s Pinched runs at Rhodes Contemporary Art, 42 New Compton Street, WC2H 8DA from 3 May to 1 June 2019. For more information, visit the website.

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