SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Phillip K. Smith III’s artwork of today, which sits at an intersection of art and architecture, is a result of his life’s journey through place, memory, and landscape, fueled by light, color, time, and space. 

Smith, who grew up in the Coachella Valley, left after high school to attend the Rhode Island School of Design where he was trained in both fine arts and architecture, the latter being his main career upon returning to the desert after 11 years on the East Coast. Though Smith had a successful practice as an architect, he was determined to pursue becoming a full-time artist. It was not until the global recession in 2008, when architecture jobs began to dry up, that he was able to fully make the transition to art.

Returning to the desert was an essential move for Smith. “I believe that I couldn’t be doing the work that I’m doing if I didn’t live here,” he shared with Hyperallergic over Zoom from his Palm Desert studio. “Coming back, I had a great re-awakening to the beauty of the desert.” For many artists there is an unspoken pressure to live and work in major art capitals like New York or Los Angeles, but for Smith, the work is intrinsically tied to the atmospheric experience of the desert, the way the light moves, and the metaphysics of it — each element informs his work. “I missed seeing the horizon line [while living on the East coast], I missed the sense of space and scale. I missed the sunsets and the skies that are dramatic and powerful here every single day.” For the first three months after returning to the Palm Springs region, Smith spent most days hiking, reacclimating himself to the environment and surroundings of the Coachella Valley. “That adjustment period set me on the trajectory and path that I am on now,” he said. 

Detail, Phillip K. Smith III, Three Parallels at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (2022), Scottsdale, Arizona

In 2010, Smith participated in a residency at the Palm Springs Art Museum that dramatically shifted the way he approached his work. Previously, Smith’s public artworks were mainly dealing with light and shadow, but during his museum residency, the artist had a sudden change of plan for the work that would become “Aperture” (2010). “I had proposed that Aperture was going to be wood, opaque, and painted,” he shared. “But three weeks before I was supposed to show up at the museum, everything changed. I realized it cannot be opaque, it has to be translucent, and it needs to be animated internally with light.”

Over the next few weeks, the artist, and his assistant tested the materials and technologies needed to make the work a reality. “It was truly the first light-based, color-based work I’d done.” It was a diametric shift for Smith. “I had very little formal training in color,” he said. “What I learned about color, I learned from my mom’s interior design sensibility or through the changing colors of the desert. Being trained as an architect and having designed and built several building projects, I have a deep respect for architecture. Ultimately, I found my creative freedom through experimentations with light.”

In 2013, the artist created “Lucid Stead” out of an abandoned structure on his property in Joshua Tree. This work was the first time Smith had merged light activation sculptures like what was seen in “Aperture, and fused them with reflective, mirrored surfaces. “I had this thought of, how can I make anything more beautiful than Joshua Tree?’” he shared. “I wanted to use that beauty as artistic material within the work via a reflective surface.”

Each project, each installation or public sculpture, builds on the last and evolves into the next for Smith. The creation of a pastiche of geometric shapes, play with light and shadow, color, and the mirrored surfaces all come together in Three Parallels, his current solo exhibition at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), for which he created site-specific work as part of the museum’s Architecture + Art series. The deceptive simplicity of the work feels easy to engage with. “I am focused on laying down a welcome mat. I seek to find ways to allow people into my work.” said Smith. That ease of entry can shift through each individual’s history and experience, and their perception of reality and reading of color bring meaning and reading to the work. 

Phillip K. Smith III, “Lucid Stead” (2013), installation, Joshua Tree, California (photo Lance Gerber, courtesy the artist)

Comprising three monolithic, mirrored volumes placed in the center of the gallery, Three Parallels is reminiscent of a Donald Judd wall stack articulated horizontally across the ground, but in monumental scale. Spending time in the work, these smoky mirrored monoliths begin to glow with what Smith calls “choreographed” colored light. The experience in the installation is incredibly intimate while simultaneously giving a feeling of vastness. There is a certain level of the sublime evoked within the installation — awesome beauty that all at once feels joyful and terrifying. The varying intensities and hues can elicit feelings of euphoria and an almost mysterious eroticism when the violet and blush register, while feelings of anxiety and discomfort seem to emerge as the intensity of the red floods the space. 

“Our experience with light is either with absolute control via a light switch or zero control via the movement of the sun,” said Smith. “I’m seeking to bring that sense of being inside of a space where you know the sun does not exist but you’re experiencing changing light, there’s this sense of ‘I should be able to control it, but I can’t.’” Beyond being a passive experience of light and sculpture viewing, the reflective quality of Smith’s work implicates viewers more directly; they don’t just experience the piece, but are part of the work in and of itself, witnessing in real-time the way color and shadow play with corporeal reality.

“I think color is one of the least understood realities of our daily world and that there’s a lot of generalized statements about how we respond to color. Ultimately, I think that color is deeply tied to memory, which means that each of us has our own emotions and responses linked to our specific experience of color,” he said. “With my work, I like to operate within a universal language of color, geometry, light and shadow. These are things that all of us deal with on a daily basis and immediately allow us into the work.”

In addition to the exhibition at SMoCA, the artist has an exhibition, which opened November 25, in his hometown at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Phillip K. Smith III: Light + Change features a combination of new and existing works, ranging from wall-mounted and free-standing sculptures to light-based works and immersive installations that illustrate the breadth and scope of his practice. At the heart of the installation are “Cylinders”(2004), the first sculptures Smith ever created. The exhibition feels like a full-circle moment for the artist — showing work at his home-town institution. “It is a complete honor — I have been coming to this museum since I was in the first grade.” An honor indeed, for an artist working outside of a major art center to have a mid-career survey of work in the community where continues to be inspired and guided. 

Phillip K. Smith III, “Aperture” (2010), installation at the Palm Springs Art Museum, California (courtesy the artist)
Installation view of Phillip K. Smith III’s Three Parallels at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (2022), Arizona
Installation view of Phillip K. Smith III, Three Parallels at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (2022), Arizona
Installation view of Phillip K. Smith III’s Three Parallels at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (2022), Arizona
Detail, Phillip K. Smith III’s Three Parallels at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (2022), Arizona
Installation view of Phillip K. Smith III’s Three Parallels at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (2022), Arizona

Erin Joyce is a writer and curator of contemporary art and has organized over 35 exhibitions across the US. She was a winner of the 2023 Rabkin Prize for arts journalism from The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin...