On the Wall: Paul Anthony Smith
April 28 - July 30, 2016
Providence College Galleries
During the nineteenth century, photography was the exclusive preserve of a small number of professionals, with their large-format cameras and glass plates. So when Kodak invented the film camera, it needed to teach people how and what to photograph, and persuade them on why they needed to do so. The company, therefore, marketed photography as a social activity. That is, Kodak focused on teaching their customers the reasons why people take pictures and how they, now both the artist and the archivist, should relate to their pictures as moments not just merely captured, but perfectly crafted by the photographer. For them, photography was all about preserving not just memories, but perfect memories, for posterity. In this respect, Kodak played a big role in converting travel to tourism. The idea was that if the traveler did not bring back pictures from their vacation, they might as well not have gone. That without documentation of the far-away land and its natives, traditions and epic beauty, friends and family stuck at home might believe the journey never happened at all. In the hands of millions of amateur and professional photographers, the company and its products—from the pocket camera of 1895 to today’s Kodak Moments iPhone app—literally and figuratively transformed the image of the world’s many locales into visually alluring destinations that, at times, stripping a place of its struggle and grit, at others, spotlighting its uniquely gorgeous people, places and things.
With his installation for the On the Wall mural program at Providence College—Galleries (PC–G), artist Paul Anthony Smith has painted the gallery walls a bright yellow (only a few shades brighter than the Kodak hue), drawn onto them a faintly staggered cinderblock pattern, and affixed to the surface hundreds of vibrantly colored 4 x 6 inch photographs taken in and around his native Jamaica. Smith’s photos, though initially seeming like mere snapshots, actually exemplify a bold sequence of photographic compositions depicting the layered aspects of one of Jamaica’s most celebrated entities: food. Specifically food as it is grown, produced, distributed, prepared and enjoyed (and perhaps hated) on the island, and also food as it relates to nature, tradition, class and ethnic identity. In the context of Jamaica, a destination for more than a million tourists per year, food and its consumption form essential and dichotomous parts of the human experience on the island. Whether prepared by and for locals or prepared internationally palatable by locals for outsiders, the plentiful harvest of Jamaican land and labor has a correspondingly complex role within cultural and economic production. It is a savory, sweet and metaphorical vehicle for need and desire, purity and danger, value and lack, connection and disruption, and infinite other dominant/subjective binaries. Smith’s installation brilliantly compresses so much—it archives and then transcends all there is when a historically dominated yet celebrated people expend—willingly or not—the sources of their own pleasure and rich cultural heritage on the fleeting moments of tourists’ gratification.
The yellow wall color, which Smith uses strategically throughout his oeuvre, mimics the bright endocarp of Jamaican mangos, as seen in several of the photographs. It also conjures the yellow known so well as part of Jamaica’s trio of national colors. The cinderblock pattern drawn on the wall provides a pragmatic structure for the room-encompassing installation, and like most cinderblock walls of the post-industrial era, it stands tall and interchangeably out of necessity—like the walls of an apartment building—and/or oppression—like a barrier meant to keep people out—and/or symmetrical artistry—like a castle’s façade. The impression of the wall, similar to those Kodak moments, depends entirely on the perspective of those who encounter it, and on their lot in life at that specific moment in time. But that Smith chose to create a representation of a wall at this particular moment in time (not just serendipitously matching the On the Wall title of PC–G’s On the Wall mural) is significant. In this age of rapid globalization, huge socio-economic disparity, and environmental and cultural vulnerability, Smith’s wall, with its ties to the fraught past and present of Jamaica and other cultures around the world borne of forced African dispersion, could potentially refer to the many moments when people, primarily of non-white communities, are being forced out and beyond the walls of their homelands only to face a series of nearly impossible-to-scale physical and bureaucratic obstacles blocking them from safety and refuge.
Despite his uncanny ability to pack so much historical and political content into this project, Smith’s personal optimism, creative tenacity, and cultural pride shine brightest. His subjects are treated with the utmost dignity: men, women, young and old, rich and poor, the people whose moments make up the walls of this installation are respected, cherished and lovingly displayed by the artist.
About the Artist
Paul Anthony Smith was born in Jamaica and raised in Miami before residing for several years in the Midwest, where he earned a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute. He now lives and works in New York City. He has recently exhibited artwork in group and solo exhibitions at Carrie Secrist Gallery in Chicago; Zieher Smith & Horton, Studio Museum in Harlem, Wallach Gallery at Columbia University, all in New York City; The Fowler Museum at University of California, Los Angeles; The Mckinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC) in Dallas; and Seattle Art Museum.