Transience, the debut solo exhibition for Jamaican-American artist Paul Anthony Smith, features paintings and unique works on paper that speak to a search for identity that is at once autobiographical and universal.
Acutely aware of his status as an immigrant artist, Smith was inspired by trips back to Jamaica, as well as research into its history and that of the broader African diaspora. Interested in ideas of hierarchy, culture, and identity, both as fact and nostalgic reimagining, his sources range from his own contemporary photographs to historical images and books, such as Tropical Africa and The River Plate Republics: Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, c. 1960s Time-Life publications.
A bold sequence of large oil paintings and smaller painted works on paper depict Jamaican airport workers as they work, converse, and mill about the tarmac. On his most recent trip, the artist was struck by these almost invisible first ambassadors of sorts, one of many crucial aspects to his native country’s biggest industry. Rendered simply and boldly in poses summoning classic references as well as Jamaica’s famously relaxed style, the figures are elevated to epic proportions. Their bright safety vests and simple uniforms hint at a common dignity while contrasting boldly with the very dark skin hues that the artist prefers: “Their tonality casts a distinction around the surrounding environment of a piece.”
These painted works contrast with unique, jewel-like “picotages.” Smith uses a ceramic tool to laboriously pick away at the surface material of photographic prints, a unique technique loosely derived from an 18th century French process typically used with textiles. Though the process is purely ablative, the resultant texture creates a shimmering surface, as if flecked with glitter.
Smith always obscures his subjects’ faces, creating masks that further refer to tribal cultures, and sometimes continues through their entire stature. The figures range from the formal and historically loaded to family photos and candid snapshots taken by the artist while visiting his homeland, places he has referred to as “non-tourist locations.” Thus, the floral patterning on his Jamaican Night Walkers contrasts with works like Queen, featuring Queen Elizabeth II, and Ras, which recreates a specific Kuba mask design (a tribe in the Democratic Republic of Congo), including vertical lines below the eyes representing tears of joy, passion, pain and strife to come. Both regal and regular subjects are given equal treatment: part scarification, part ceremonial veil, part hoodlum’s mask, yet always containing an element of powerful negation. Whether, first, second or third world, his subjects are united, at once beautiful, proud, and uncanny.
Smith was born in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica in 1988. He moved to Miami at age nine and later attended the New World School of Arts. He received his BFA at the Kansas City Art Institute in 2010, where he studied ceramics and painting. He lives and works in Kansas City, Missouri.