Paul Anthony Smith, Junction @Jack Shainman

JTF (just the facts): A two-venue show consisting of a total of 31 black-and-white and color works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the connected rooms of the two gallery spaces.

At the 24th Street location:

  • 14 unique picotage on inkjet prints, alternately with pencil, colored pencil, oil stick, and spray paint, mounted on museum board, 2016-2019, sized between roughly 20×30 and 40×60 inches (or reverse), unique

At the 20th Street location:

  • 17 unique picotage on inkjet prints, alternately with pencil, colored pencil, oil stick, and spray paint, mounted on museum board, 2017-2019, sized between roughly 20×30 and 58×90/47×94 inches (or reverse), unique

(Installation and detail shots for both venue below.)

Comments/Context: Almost since the invention of the medium, artists have wanted to reinterpret their photographic prints via surface modifications. Retouching and overpainting were the first ways that prints were intentionally altered, and in the past few decades, the methods of physical intervention have multiplied. Not only are paint, ink, pencil, and various darkroom chemicals now routinely used or added, more invasive interventions have emerged and become similarly commonplace. We are now familiar with cutting, ripping, collaging, weaving, sewing, stitching, burning, drilling, and other hand-crafted processes that are being applied to photographs, and we’re not surprised by this deliberate remapping (or reimagining) of what the photograph originally documented. It’s all part of the ongoing exploration of the physicality of the print and the image/object dichotomy of photography.

Paul Anthony Smith employs an intricate physical scraping technique he calls “picotage” to reconfigure the surface properties of his works. The patterns of veiled whiteness that cover his images are actually made up of thousands of small hand cut indentations in the photographic paper, where the image surface is peeled back to reveal the whiteness of the paper underneath (see the detail images above). Depending on the size of the miniscule scrapes, their distance apart, and their density, Smith can tune the degree of whiteness from loose dappling to near complete whiteout, giving him the freedom to interrupt the underlying imagery in varying ways.

Smith’s photographs capture moments from everyday life in his native Jamaica as well as views of the West Indian Day Parade in New York city. They are largely casual pictures, snapshots in many cases: oceanscapes with palm trees and blue skies, improvised portraits and street life (a few enlivened by the island’s signature red, gold, and green motif), and colorful moments of parade participants and nearby revelers in exotic costumes. As stand alone photographs, most would be considered forgettable, while some push the spectacle toward blur, where the colors meld and merge.

Smith uses his picotage process to create geometric patterns that cover the surface of his prints. Some replicate the breeze blocks commonly found in Caribbean architecture, the square cement blocks braced by circular arcs that link up into rounds or rosettes when set into grids or walls. Others slice an image into vertical strips, which are then split again into cut and not cut sections, creating alternating ups and downs. Still others take the striping further, becoming tiled squares that shimmer back and forth. And a few employ a brick motif that builds up into the echo of interlocked walls.

When the images are covered by the picotage, their ability to communicate clearly is partially but deliberately blocked. The personal touches, collective gatherings, rituals, and intimate moments the photographs capture are placed behind semi-transparent screens and veils, obscuring (or perhaps concealing) what is going on and placing a physical barrier between the viewer and the viewed. We can generally still identify what is taking place behind these walls, but we are not encouraged to engage or participate – the picotage creates separation, as if what is depicted is not entirely for the eyes of others or outsiders. In a few cases, Smith goes further and doubles the barrier motif, adding a spray painted chain link fence design on top of the picotage, forcing us to peer through the links to see the imagery.

The open-endedness of Smith’s compositions is what gives them their punch – depending on your point of view, any scene can be looking out, looking in, or looking through, each with its own nuances and derived meanings. We can read the images as borders, see questions of privacy and protection, or consider how identity is shaped (or broken up) when transformed by separation. The picotage is never just decorative or frilly – the permeable interruptions force us into divisions of inside and outside, and those rifts and ruptures give the snapshots a sense of persistent unease. When the picotage is applied to the energetic parade pictures, the vivacity and positive feelings of the event become abstracted, the blurred colors of the elaborate costumes becoming softly impressionistic, that is until they are slashed by the edges of the dark fence links, reminding us that maybe we aren’t allowed to see these effusive expressions.

All this boils down to a sophisticated artistic engagement with the idea of access – and the subtleties of who has access, what is accessed, how and when it can be accessed, and why we either have access or are denied it. When Smith then quietly maps those layers of access to the understated complexities of race, immigration, cultural appropriation, and diasporic history, the results become even more resonant and powerful.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $8500 and $32000, based on size, with many already sold. Smith’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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