By Ayla Rexroth
Paul Anthony Smith is Jamaican American, his attitude is positive, he is opinionated and his works employ traditional genre scenes. His media ranges from ceramics, paintings, drawings, collages and photography, and this gives him a wide range of visual and material strategies for communicating his ideas about cultural tradition, world politics, and race.
I was excited to meet with Paul because his work challenges me to think outside of my own cultural perspectives and I can read it on several levels. Growing up in Iowa, my hometown happened to have an amazing collection of Haitian genre paintings, and they were my favorite because they were out of place in a museum where most of the exhibits were either by regionalist painter Grant Wood or about corn production. I can easily connect much of Paul’s imagery to the Caribbean paintings I love, but there are several differences. Paul is making art in historically regionalist Kansas City, and he’s working with contemporary themes, events, and methods.
A commonality within Smith’s recent work is the obscuring and alteration of faces and skin. Some of the most extreme of which are his pieces where he picks at printed photographs to create a rough white paper pulp texture over the skin of the figures. The images are destroyed by the picking, but look similar to patterns on African ceremonial masks and costumes. I found it interesting that he picked a photo of his cousins sitting on a curb in his piece “Non Tourist Location” in the same manner as an image of the mid-century Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selass I.
Paul showed me several series of paintings, some of which are about capturing the posture and demeanor of his family in Jamaica, others depict portraits made with large brush strokes and simplified shapes. I asked about why the figures postures are important and Paul clicked through a photo collection of a few thousand images of his family in Jamaica. Seeing a larger picture of where he draws his content I could see him using his close personal experiences, zooming out to have a global dialogue, and appropriating historical images to reference figures from the U.S civil rights movement era.
The pieces I chose to exhibit at Subterranean were in progress on a wall in Paul’s studio. Paul had drawn onto magazine images in the way kids deface pictures of people they don’t like. These stood out from his other work and as he explained the concepts behind them things got personal. The magazine images are taken from Kansas City Spaces magazine and upon examining the fall clothing spread entitled “In Living Color” I realized Paul had blatantly marked over the white woman in the ad into black face and crossed out the photo spreads title. In the last image of the series the woman’s real face is revealed, but is awkwardly collaged into a Boost Mobile Ad with her arm around rapper Young Jeezy. Paul presented these images in mixed and matched thrift store frames, reflecting the same level of thought and care that originally went into the features presentation. Paul talked about the general awfulness of the magazines ability to create an appealing or effective advertisement, but moreover the spread re-presents Kansas City’s ideal high end retail customer as a woman of color.
Special thanks to Paul
Photos By Clayton Skidmore