Paul Anthony Smith’s show Containment was expressly concerned with what cannot be contained, what exceeds the bounds of a single photograph to render, or an individual consciousness to reconcile. The discontinuous self, memory as an act of creative nonfiction, history as endlessly splintered and unreliably narrated – over the past few decades, these have all gelled into foundational truths and served to underpin myriad image-making strategies favoring montage, disruption, and contradiction. Smith’s new work nestles into this recent tradition, adding materially inventive twists of its own, sometimes to stirring ends.
Born in Jamaica and based in Brooklyn, Smith uses photographs from both places, as well as Puerto Rico, in his work. In the picotage series, he uses a sharp tool to scrape at areas of the print’s surface, raising tiny paper tabs that cohere into fields of white specks, at once interrupting, diffusing, and veiling the image beneath. In some cases, shapes in the picture, such as a hand or the leaves of a plant, are re-articulated through these bristling marks. Mostly, Smith sets altered and intact areas of a photograph against each other in crisp stripes and diamond patterns. The effect is prismatic, and most arresting when the intervention deconstructs a single, legible portrait rather than images of gatherings that already read as fragmented and ambiguous. In places, Smith also draws and paints on the color photographs, adding yet another language into the mix and offering, through these shifting methods of defining space, metaphorical stand-ins for multiple, simultaneous modes of comprehending experience.
In Grey Area, a second series of work, Smith starts with photographs of partially seen figures and breaks them into a dozen blocks before re-assembling them as a grid, which he silkscreens onto the canvas. The grainy dot-pattern and staccato repetition feel vaguely Warholesque, but the appealing grit is neutralized somewhat by the overlay of postcard-friendly, painted palm trees. One striking piece features a picture of a crowd, its barely legible sections aligned in an irregular grid tinted teal and pale olive. As in the sculpturally textured picotages, both pictorial space and represented place are unsettled. That visual and conceptual restlessness – that oscillation between informational scarcity and sensual generosity – is what most animates Smith’s work.