Last month, I wrote about Artistic Visions of the Golden Gate Bridge, an exhibition at the George Krevsky Gallery, in San Francisco, now extended through June. A highlight for me, as I noted, was coming upon three paintings of men at work building our celebrated International Orange span, set off by white-gold clouds in an indigo sky and a blue, blue bay. Reminiscent of WPA or pulp-fiction artwork, the bold style and colors indicated the artist was none other than Owen Smith, whose work I’d seen many times in the New Yorker, as well as on posters up and down Market Street in 2008.
Turns out that Smith, who lives in Alameda, has even more artwork up locally these days, in the form of three posters in 44 BART stations throughout the rail system. (The 19th Street station in Oakland, for one, has posters of all three images) If you remember Smith’s Market Street posters—which featured characters from Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco-set masterwork, The Maltese Falcon—or saw any of his 18 New Yorker covers, almost all of which fronted a special fiction issue, you will instantly recognize his work.
The new posters depict people reading Hammett, Amy Tan, or Jack London on BART. In each case, the image conflates reality (rider in a BART car) with the visions conjured by the book he or she is reading. “The Maltese Falcon” is cheerfully noir. As the tram passes John’s Grill, a man in a brown suit and fedora catches the eye of a babe clad in scarlet. No doubt distracted by the Maltese falcon he carries, the woman doesn’t notice the man in the next seat, peering at her over his newspaper. Illuminated by the car’s overhead lights, the scene includes the reader in her purple jacket and a map of the BART stops.
“The Call of the Wild” has a more subdued palette, befitting the wintry scene. Here, the tram is moving through a snowy mountain pass, with snowflakes falling indoors and out. Echoing the book’s cover design, a lively team of huskies pulls a sled across the snow that covers the floor of the car.
“The Joy Luck Club” is the most elusive: Glowing paper lanterns and two women, one in a lush red traditional jacket and golden headpiece, the other in drab Mao-wear, fill so much space, it’s not clear at first that the reader in her cushioned blue seat is on BART.
Smith, 47, has clearly been influenced by a certain style of American art; think of Edward Hopper, George Bellows, the regionalist Thomas Hart Benton. Diego Rivera is also an influence—as are the pulp-fiction book jackets that Smith began collecting in art school. Smith, who grew up in Fremont, trained in commercial art (illustration) at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, graduating in 1989. (He has a twin brother who is also an artist.) In the early ’90s, he and his wife, Elizabeth Uyehara—she’s an illustrator, too—moved to New York, the mecca of graphic-design work, and stayed for three years. “I loved New York, but I didn’t want to be schlepping baby strollers up and down the subway stairs,” he says. “We came back about 15 years ago, bought a house, and started having babies.”
Nowadays Smith teaches illustration at California College of the Arts in the city and, just to confound those who say illustration is not art, is represented by La Luz de Jesus Gallery in L.A. and Sloan Fine Art in New York. He also has work at the SFMOMA Artists Gallery, at Fort Mason. You can get great prices on fine art at the Artists Gallery–and for the next several months at least, you can see Owen Smith’s work for free on BART.