By: Arielle Kessler
If you get the chance to see just one show in Philadelphia this month, head for the Crane Arts Building and Interference at Photo Arts Center. Curated by Nathaniel Stein, this show features two black American artists of very different backgrounds—Paul Anthony Smith and Andre Bradley—that nonetheless hold their own together; two distinct languages in harmonious dialogue.
Paul Anthony Smith is a Brooklyn-based artist from Jamaica, educated at the Kansas City Art Institute and the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida. His photograph adopts a very painterly approach, focusing on themes of disguise and revelation to combine imagery of Caribbean landscape and portraiture. The series presented in Interference is his Grey Area series, along with one photograph outside the series, Only in America.
Andre Bradley is a graduate of Hampshire College and received an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. His work on view here can be seen as an extension of his critically-acclaimed Dark Archives series, which also interweaves his writing and photographs with family snapshots, in an attempt to disrupt the linguistic and visual constrictions placed on black males.
The first piece we see on entering the exhibition is Smith’s Grey Area #2.8. Smith perforates the surface of his photographs with myriad tiny pinpricks that he terms picotage, relating it to the 18th century fabric technique of that name. His typical format is an irregular patchwork of juxtaposed images that looks like the work of Robert Rauschenberg in which a disruption of a singular image creates an invisible barrier that prevents the viewer from sitting on one point for too long. And yet, in Grey Area #9, we see a monochromatic image that breaks up the face of a black man with images of what appears to be foliage, although hard to distinct with the blurriness the picotage creates. The viewer is immediately drawn to the eye that is the
central point of the image, which Is also a part of the largest fragment of imagery within the photograph. It commands attention with an enigmatic undertone that leaves us questioning who they’re looking at.
Bradley’s work reads like a book, especially in the manner it is presented to us here with wall text and photographs displayed together, and even more so in the context of his Dark Archives series. The mood his textual and found imagery invokes is fragile and intimate, revealing different layers of memory. He uses underexposure with equivalence to the confessional nature of his writing to delve into the complexities of his personal life, exploring in particular issues that relate to being a black man. He says in one of his wall texts next to his work, Untitled (“All water has a perfect memory…”), an image of a black and white sea, “[T]he word Black, for example, creates a rupture in me…Other people’s limits create a fracture in my identity. To me Black is quiet. Black is changing.” These found images and poetic texts form a fractal of the social forces responsible for defining “Andre Bradley.”
The exhibition generated a good sense of continuity. although it could be argued that Bradley’s highly personal work tended to overshadow Smith’s more generalized imagery. In his work, Bradley cuts deeply into the veins of the forces that define a person: race, family, society. But Smith held his own in fragmented, blurry imagery, in a way that Bradley functioned on a more specifically intimate level.