Paul Anthony Smith: Tradewinds
On ViewJack Shainman
February 25 – April 3, 2021
Paul Anthony Smith never forgets to remind us in his work that we are always looking, and we are not there. That is very important, because often the viewer feels that they are immersed in that at which they are looking, which can breed a false sense of intimacy with the subject. Sometimes you understand things much better when you acknowledge how different they are from you. The exhibition starts with Eyes fi di tropics (2020–21) a seductive image of a paradisal Caribbean sunrise, framed by Smith’s signature picotage technique. Picotage is a process in textile manufacturing, here used on photographs, where the surface is picked at with a needle, producing a texture of tiny raised plumes of paper. The artist has used picotage to transform his surfaces throughout his career, and in successive stages he has progressed from simply obscuring the image through blocks of picking, to laying down patterns, often playing with the directionality of the picked surface. In Tradewinds, he has begun projecting architectural framing devices onto the picture plane. Even more than before, the picotage filter has created a structure imposed by the artist through which to view his subjects. While most of the photographs are compositions of figures, in Eyes fi di Tropics and Breeze off yu soul (2020–21), Smith creates a matrix for viewing the landscape, through a window or a gate, with a pair of rectangles. These are eye-like surrogates—centered on the planes, and placed through which to peer, or which peer back at you. This distancing technique between viewer and viewed concretizes our understanding that Smith is jealously guarding his position as viewer, and we are along for the ride, looking and analyzing what the artist sees.
For the most part, Smith photographs spontaneous groupings of individuals, either in Jamaica, where he is from, or other countries in the Caribbean, which he visits to gather source material. The subjects acknowledge the camera, but it usually seems to catch them in the midst of doing something more important than posing (they are anti-selfies so to speak). Untitled (2020–21) depicts a gathering of women at a kitchen table having a drink, while Dog an Duppy Drink Rum (2020–21) shows a much larger group of men carousing outdoors. The artist focuses on the faces of his characters, picking away at them and simultaneously highlighting them and obscuring their features. The women’s faces in Untitled are manipulated into psychedelic apparitions via the artist’s technique—think KISS. In Dog an Duppy one figure is completely blacked out, forcing a juxtaposition with picotaged whiteness imposed on the other characters. Is this an individual that Smith detests or simply an extra body that ruins the composition? The ambiguity is wonderful, and because the figures themselves are interacting with each other, they seem to acknowledge the absence of their comrade, as if to ask the viewer/artist, “why is he gone?”
Smith’s new work is deeply analogous to Watteau’s tensely psychological compositions of picnicking and celebratory gatherings. Like Watteau’s tableaux, Smith uses the poignant gaze of a figure to subtly interpret the scene as a whole: what are the power-structures at play amongst these figures? Are they really enjoying themselves? Untitled (Dead Yard) (2020) and Yaad Star (2020–21) are two of a series of large-scale portraits of figures, and Dead Yard particularly reminds one of Watteau’s famous Pierrot (formerly called Gilles) (ca. 1718–19). In Pierrot, the central figure stands apart from the background action, pensively acknowledging the viewer, but nervously assuming an awkward pose, possibly indicating he would prefer not to be looked at (or that he really wants you to—we will never know). Dead Yard presents an eight-foot-tall dominating portrait of a man, caught by the camera in a moment of jubilation. Compositionally similar to Pierrot in the placement of a large luminous full-length figure slightly left of center, Smith has created an intricate gate behind the man in picotage, and the interlocking circle pattern of this barricade begins to actually emerge through the figure standing in front of it. There is an almost sinister quality in the way in which the bright vertical figure begins to be absorbed into the background, echoing, like Watteau, the affecting desire of the figure not to be seen, perhaps even not to be there at all.
The overarching notion of observing the process of the artist looking at the subject is further refined and expanded in the portraits of solo individuals in Tradewinds. Smith’s method of photography on the whole insists that the subject is aware that they are being observed, and that it is a moderate intrusion onto their consciousness. In portraits like Islands #2, Islands #3, Islands #4, and Untitled #4 (all 2020–21), the subject is caught off-guard, and is warily regarding the viewer, reciprocating the analytic look with which we are regarding the image. Rationally we know they cannot see us, but the artist has managed to draw out an intense connection which he then heightens by his manipulation of the surface, in which we begin to comprehend the self-consciousness he feels in moving through these spaces he records, and encountering these individuals. Of the four above mentioned, Untitled #4 is a heavy-set man who leans back in an easy chair, acknowledging Smith with a bemused expression, strangely amplified by the artist emphasizing the forehead and arching eyebrows. The man in Islands #2 seems immersed in his own troubles, gazing off at a three-quarter angle, beyond us. Splotchy patches of picotage seem to drift across the picture plane, mimicking camouflage or cloud formations, and imposing an ephemeral but impermeable boundary between us and his thoughts—and It seems he would prefer it this way. Accommodating the space of another’s presence seems to be the theme of Tradewinds. It is nothing so dire as “we are all alone,” but from an absorbingly sober vantage point we are gifted the experience of tagging along with Paul Anthony Smith on his voyage of observation, but it may be that we are being observed and interpreted almost as much as the subjects in the pictures.