When walking into a luxury Manhattan highrise, most of us don’t normally stop to think of all the construction workers who lent their hard work and expertise to the project, and all too often we don’t stop to notice the art on the wall, either, or to consider the artist behind it. But Bushwick artist Paul Anthony Smith took the unlikely subject of construction workers and created bold paintings that are hard to miss, to be featured prominently in an elaborate new building in lower Manhattan.
Smith has created three paintings for a new condominium high-rise designed by architect Helmut Jahn, currently under construction at 50 West Street. Smith was one of three artists selected to create artwork for the building as part of developer Francis Greenburger’s program where in exchange for the art Smith was given a free art studio at 40 Rector Street, where he’s spent the last five months.
“The idea was to have the artists respond to the building,” said Jennie K. Lamensdorf, director of Art-in-Buildings for Greenburger’s company Time Equities Inc. Smith was given a hardhat, a construction vest and permission to hang out at the site. Inspired by the construction workers, he went to the parking garage across the street, where he could go several floors up for a different vantage point, and took their photos so he could use them as models.
“I come from a working class background,” said Smith, who added that people like his father, who worked on a cruise ship, are often overlooked while the work they do provides the infrastructure that allows everyone to go about their daily lives. “Even MTA workers, there’s a whole network of them that you don’t see. Registrars, archivists, you’ve got to respect them. They’re there behind the scenes doing their job, getting paid.”
He’s found himself taking notice of those seemingly invisible workers more often now, snapping pictures of trash collectors on the way to the studio and chatting up the security guard at Duane Reade. It fascinates Smith to wake up to a freshly paved street in front of his apartment and to think that a road crew was working there all night, but he never saw them.
Observing construction workers has made him more aware of the fact that a large percentage of manual laborers in New York City are immigrants. “You realize most of them speak several languages and are probably sending money home to their families,” he said. He feels a connection to them, having moved from Jamaica to Miami in 1997. He moved to Bushwick just over a year ago.
Though much of Smith’s work leaves people’s faces ambiguous, the construction workers’ features are relatively distinct. “I wanted them to be recognized as specific individuals working as a team to create a building,” he said.
He generally loves to play around with ambiguity and anonymity (he declined to have his photo taken for this article), giving the viewer pieces of information and allowing them to fill in the blanks themselves. One piece, for example, is made of fragments of photos that show just a bit of the faces of a man and child. In another he used picotage, an 18th Century French textile process wherein ceramic tools are used to poke holes in photographs. “I’ve used it to disguise the images of the figures in my photographs,” he said. At the same time, he used the picotage to create a diamond overlay that seems to change and become more or less apparent depending on the angle you view it from.
Most of the photos he uses in his art he took during trips to Jamaica to visit his family. “I think the reason why I do a lot of work based on Jamaica is just nostalgia and yearning to know what it would be like if I grew up there rather than being here,” he said. While he expected to live in Brooklyn only until August of this year, he’s considering staying longer. The city has grown on him, he said; his favorite things about Bushwick are the mom and pop shops and ethnic grocery stores. He’s slightly food obsessed-he cooks most of his own meals and laments the lack of fresh mangos and limited selection of fruit in the U.S. compared to Jamaica.
Smith is currently working on a new project that has yet to take form but involves using real chicken feet to create chicken foot molds made from plastic that he melts in his apartment’s kitchen. He has a show that opens April 30 at the Zieher Smith and Horton Gallery in Chelsea, and his construction worker paintings will be hung in one of the amenity floors of 50 West when the building is completed in late 2016.
Correction: This story has been edited from its original version to state that the architect for 50 West is Helmut Jahn and 50 West will be completed by late 2016.