Construction Landscapes

Painting from a crane in Battersea Power Station is the latest development in Ruth Smith’s ongoing project depicting roadworks and construction sites across London. She is intrigued by these short glimpses of the bones beneath the environments we come to know, touch and see, holding the city together yet often taken for granted. Ruth sees an affinity between her practice and the work of the engineers who construct the city, where raw materials are re-organised to create new artefacts and experiences. In both, a kind of order emerges from the chaos. Mazes are formalised into grids. New structures rise from the tangles of demolition sites and excavations. A legible image emerges from a confusing, indistinct mess of shapes. These attempts to organise, however, are undercut by nature. The second law of thermodynamics stipulates that entropy always increases; we always create more disorder than order. Tubed paints are pushed out of their neat confines, pressed into one another and pushed over taught canvas like concrete poured and raked over reinforcing steel mesh. These ideas continue beyond the painted surface to the support behind. Making her own canvases and mixing her own primer using marble dust, Ruth paints on site on the reverse so as to transport several stacked at once. Later she constructs new stretcher bars to fit the painted image and re-stretches the canvas. These stretcher bars and the woven web of the canvas relate to the grid, the tension of its structure and inconsistencies with its efficiency.


Roadworks peel back the skin of the city revealing more fully the grid which connects it into one unity. Gas, electricity, water, and transport are intertwined in a system relying on fluid and easy movement throughout. This is the modern city, pertaining to the grid, and renouncing its antithesis, the maze. However, each attempt at modernisation results in more of a maze-like present. Roadworks create a confusing and slow network of diversion signs. The second law of thermodynamics is that entropy always increases, and things always have to get more disordered. My tidy paints in their tubes are forced out of their neat confines, and squashed into each other in open space, dirtying them and confusing their original messages. Physicists call this second law the ‘arrow of time’. But the modernity would rather avoid this chaotic inevitability. Cycling round London I often stop to click a pic of exciting roadworks. My paintings are reworkings of these scientific slices of light in the moment. Every present is a rewriting of its past, and I try to encapsulate this idealism in my paintings.

My etchings of cranes and scaffolding also reference my thinking on the grid, but speak primarily of themes of legibility. The city as a space can be bewildering as one passing through, foot on paving, rubber on tarmac, but as one soaring high above, the system of roads and paths make more sense, and the pattern of things is more easily perceived.

These thoughts on semiotics leads to my interest in the actual act of creation. The workers making the road are focused on the composition of different materials to create a desired specification. Not what the road will mean in the experience of the later users. The people painting the road markings are not reading the road markings. In the moment I am painting I am more focused on getting the light and colour to the desired effect, and my thoughts are less on the meanings that will be derived from the finished piece. In a city of metaphysical interactions, when money seems like an abstract number, and words are series of codes interpretable only through computers, or a smile more often shines from a photo rather than a face, this concentration on material make-up and the natural and physical laws that envelop us gives me a strange sense of comfort.