What tools can an artist use to make an audience slow down and pay attention to an image? The Jamaican-born, Brooklyn-based artist Paul Anthony Smith employs picotage in his photographic work, adapting a technique traditionally used for printed textiles. With a needlelike tool, he carefully picks away dots from the surface of his prints to create patterns that often mimic those of breeze block walls or chain-link fences. He then embellishes the surfaces with colored pencil and spray paint, creating new layers of pictorial information. The photographs, which Smith takes in Jamaica and New York, generally show people of Afro-Caribbean descent, but the final compositions strategically conceal their identities. Rather than providing than strict portraits, Smith’s project offers broad commentary on the ways in which black communities navigate surveillance and marginalization.
In “Junction,” which occupied both of Jack Shainman’s Chelsea galleries, Smith explored the collision of influences that characterize Caribbean and Caribbean-American culture. A number of works were based on photos he took at Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade, including a trio of untitled depictions of individual women wearing elaborate Carnival costumes with feathers and jewels. The exhibition’s title work—one of the most inscrutable images on view—portrays a large crowd at a gathering, with horizontal bands of picotage effectively blurring out most of the faces. But one figure is left largely untouched: a young woman in the foreground wearing a black baseball cap, her body seeming to weave between the bars of stippled white.
Breeze block walls, which were popular in mid-twentieth-century architecture, are built with hollow-patterned concrete blocks and typically found in warm climates. Part decorative, part functional, they absorb heat and allow air to pass through. Among the works featuring patterns based on such walls was Furtively Advancing Down Jones Lane (2018–19), which shows several men hanging around outside a nondescript “Italian pub,” as its sign identifies it, in Jamaica. A man in the lower left of the frame wears a crocheted Rastafarian beanie. Though the image is casual and candid, it hints at a larger historical context: Rastafarians revere the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who led a fight against Fascist Italian colonizers in the 1930s. Other works on view drew on architectural languages perhaps more common in the United States. In Only in America (2017), fragments of a photograph of roll-up gates seen through a chain-link fence are topped with a picotaged brick design and a black spray-painted chain-link motif. Invoking metaphorical and physical barriers to access, Smith offers an ironic commentary on a society in which pervasive racist fears of invasion by people of color contradict supposed values of freedom.
Most of the works on view were in color, but there were also several black-and-white examples dramatizing the historical roots of contemporary inequality. The Violence of His Embrace of Things American Is Embarrassing (2018–19) shows a group of black subjects standing in a modest graveyard among small white crosses. Smith has overlaid the image with vertical picotage stripes that form a triangular pattern based on alternating dark and light values. The title is drawn from James Baldwin’s 1954 essay “A Question of Identity,” in which the author explores the attitudes of American students, primarily ex-GIs, studying abroad in Paris in the 1950s as they confronted their own national identity from an outsider’s perspective. As Baldwin argues, they were forced to recognize the paradox at the heart of American culture: that their uniquely ahistorical attitudes were the products of their national history—a “history of the total, and willing, alienation of peoples from their forebears.” Smith’s picotage barriers visualize historical erasures, certainly, but his photos also channel the vibrancy of hybrid cultures that persist in spite of them.