Paul Anthony Smith’s exteriors often work to direct a viewer to his subject’s hidden inner core, if only to speculate, dream, wonder. Whether it’s the manipulated surface of a photograph or the blocky lines in an oil painting, Smith’s attention to the outer-facing begs the question: What lies beneath? It’s a more roundabout meditation on identity, more abstract than on-the-nose. As Smith once put it himself, “Masks disguise the figure allowing them to be free.”
Jamaica born and Brooklyn based, Smith’s work–from his paintings to his ceramics to his photographs–mines themes like history, politics, and class struggles. There is often an element of looking back, whether that be at his own heritage or of the country of his birth. Smith moved to Miami with his family when he was just nine years old. Later, Smith landed at Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri, where his focus on ceramics began to wane in favor of a curious and long-forgotten technique for which he would become best known: picotage.
Using a ceramic needle, Smith picks and plucks at the surface of his photographs. The picotage method, which Smith uses to effectively maim an image until it practically shimmers, is borrowed from 18th century France. The result is gorgeous images full of disguise, often lending his everyday subjects a pomp and grandeur they are too often not afforded in real life. It’s a theme that continues throughout Smith’s work, no matter the medium he chooses to use. He urges you to look deeper.
Over the next year, Smith’s evolved obscuration techniques will be in display in cities around the country. New York City’s ZieherSmith gallery recently closed his third solo show there, Procession. Later, he’ll be at the Atlanta Contemporary. He’ll also be a part of two group shows: one at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center and the other at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Below, Smith lets us into his studio while he prepares for a busy year to talk dynamic work histories, Flintstones drawing practice, and why one must always keep moving in order to succeed.
Former occupation and your most notable memory there:
My occupation titles include:
Sold paintings at Coconut Grove Art Festival, 2003-2006
Food vendor at Miami Dolphins, Florida Marlins, and Florida Panther games.
Shoe sale associate
Passed out bread samples
Worked in a fireworks distribution warehouse a few summers in St. Joseph, Missouri
Art handler technician
Set designer assistant
Your first experience with art as a child:
My first experience with art as a child began when my mother first bought me both sketch- and scrap-books. I began making my own replicas of the newspaper comics, mainly redrawing and tracing The Flintstones and other published drawings. I also recall playing with clay I found in a river while taking an after-school swim with my best friend in the 3rd grade. I delved further into art-making at Hibiscus Elementary after moving to Miami in the late ’90s.
Were your parents interested in the arts? What did they do for work?
My parents were interested in art but [did not have the access] we’re exposed to now. They both believed I should become an architect. My mother worked as a pastry chef and my father worked various positions on a cruise ship.
Do you remember the first time you were introduced to picotage?
I wasn’t introduced to picotage; I kind of discovered the process after using my ceramic tools on inkjet prints I was making at the time. It was a weird new directional stride, but I was not really sure of it until a few months after, when my friend Gary Noland and I decide to call [the process] picotage, based on its French textile history. I don’t think I would have gotten to this phase if it wasn’t for Ceramics and perseverance.
What—if anything—did you learn from ceramics that you took into your work with other mediums?
All material translates in unique meanings. One thing led to the other and I’m interested in that kind of trajectory. I studied ceramics because of its similarities to food, cooking, and its communal aspects. Kerry James Marshall said: “All ways keep moving. There is no circumstance under which your ambition and your desires should be curtailed because of social circumstances, political circumstances, or economic circumstances. So my thing is you always find a way. Success is perseverance, more than anything else, and what perseverance allows you to do is to continue working because you can not make progress and you cannot develop unless your working continues.” So I always keep moving! He was my commencement speaker at the Kansas CityArt Institute.
Brick and chain link-like shapes appear in your recent work. Can you explain how both came to find their way into your work?
The bricks (“Building Blocks”) (“BB’s”)” and chain links appeared in my recent work after noticing changes in my neighborhood and shifts in the landscapes, thinking back to spacial, social, and economical inclusive/exclusive divides. We become pedestrians on either side of the chain links, observing the observed, which becomes a double consciousness. Brick and blocks are used in all level of construction, and I became aware of their social and monetary value.
Are the photographs you source always your own?
I began using my own images in 2013. It became apparent that I needed to capture my own images to tell stories.
Do you know when you take a particular picture that you will use the image in a bigger work? Or does that come out later during the editing process?
I take most of my pictures using 35mm cameras–anything from cheap disposables to my manual Olympus OM-10. The great thing about film is the surprise of keeping my distance away from the Instamatic quality available via digital cameras. It creates an element of surprise. I generally get my film processed at a place called Express Photos in Kansas City, MO. Sometimes the images are not what I expect after receiving the 4 x 6 prints, and therefore become a skewed memory.
How do you think memory distorts truth?
This is a battleground when it comes to how I think of images. My images are enlarged and depersonalized by mark-making, by patterns, by acts of scarring the black skin through scarification, by choice of violence. The patterns in my work are associated with the dazed dazzle painting from early maritime camouflage–it’s a optical illusion. It’s the color fields that appear on our smartphones from the slow bandwidth. The human memory acts this way, and the cinderblocks portray some of these same pixelated qualities. In essence, our memory is never exactly as accurate as the image we describe.
How did you find your current workspace and where is it?
I found my studio based on close friends who once housed a wood shop in the building, which I used ever so often. They moved out over a year ago but I’ve since found a space within the building to call my own. It’s a 15-minute walk from home in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn,
What do you eat for breakfast?
Most days I don’t eat breakfast, but, if I do, it would be a stir-fry of vegetables, bowl of fresh ginger juice, and an espresso.
What’s a day typically look like for you, from start to finish?
My day generally starts off by checking my emails and not responding to any of them between 6:30 and 8:30 a.m. I then proceed to get wrapped up on Instagram, scanning the world of images and videos on “World Star” that pops up in my feed. I take a shower each morning; it’s the only way I can truly function. I then grab a quick snack or drink a ginger juice, move my car, get a shot of espresso, and then head to my studio. After being there for a few hours, I leave and walk into the city for a quick bite or head home for lunch. I then respond to some of those emails ignored earlier that morning. After lunch, I usually head back to the studio. Some days during the spring and summer and fall, I drive to the beach, mainly Fort Tilden or Jacob Riis Park. It’s my form of therapy and not as heavy on the pockets. Some days I try to fit in going to one of the our premier art museums around New York or gallery hop the city. Then back to Brooklyn to hang and possibly grab food/drinks! I’m always looking for people to eat lunch with.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?
Yes, I’m currently listening to a variety of artists and genres at the moment. These are a few but not all:
Jacob Miller and Inner Circle
Tribe Called Quest
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a few new wall paintings for my forthcoming show at the Atlanta Contemporary, set to open the second week of April.
What medium or tool are you most interested in presently and why?
I’m much into using R&F oil sticks at the moment. It’s been two years since I’ve really gotten into using them. It’s like using a stick of butter on a hot plate–THE SHIT JUST MELTS!
What book/ film/ work of art most recently captured your attention and why?
I find I’m most attracted to film and literature that reference my history–things that are meaningful to the function of my life. These are books I find fascinating and believe society should approach reading. I’m almost completed reading Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. So far it’s an amazing book and a must-read. Awhile back I completed Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. I recently picked up A beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. The most recent films that captured my attention include Get Out, I Am Not Your Negro, Moonlight, The Birth of a Nation, Miles Ahead. You get me now?
What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
“The stone the builder refused have become the head corner stone.”