Connoisseurs of Street: Lee Smith and Pablo Power
It’s safe to say that 2020 was a moment of collective insanity. For some, it was a shock to have the flimsiness of our sense of security, self, and society revealed once all were compromised. For others, it was an affirmation of what we knew all along: it didn’t just take zoom calls for us to know that we have phoning it in for a long time. Without belaboring the idea of “new normal,” and how normal really means nothing now, the return to life as we now know it is weighted with an awareness of loss, and grounded in a joy for what’s new, certain that it will not last.
Spring/Break has, for the past decade, been a welcome addition to the art fair circuit, offering curator-driven shows with younger and emerging voices in the field. And like most things, an art gathering called “spring/break” hits somewhat different after a pandemic, and I want to focus on curator Marina Garcia-Vasquez’s entry titled Connoisseurs of Street, featuring artists Lee Smith and Pablo Power as a way to first reconsider loss, recover time, and maybe even to move forward.
Connoisseurship in art has its roots in 18th century Europe as a sort of enlightenment-era classification through empirical categories, with all of the malignant privileges, tastes, and prejudices that one might expect. Distinction, being able to judge quality through patina, style, and other visual cues were often subtle ways of defining social position within a hierarchy. But of course, distinction is a basic human right and quality and is used, along with refinement, by everyone. Garcia-Vasquez connects Power and Smith through the street-surface: both graffiti and skateboarding were subcultures that share an affinity with alterity, while both have been easily enfolded into larger systems of hyper-capitalism. Knowing street surfaces on a granular level, to be able to not only negotiate the spatial complexity of sprawl but also to find one’s place in these fugitive spaces are prerequisites for membership in both clubs.
Lee Smith, who a lot of you may know as the former professional street skater, started to paint during the pandemic, when he inherited the studio contents of another artist fleeing the city in 2020. With these new materials, Smith started an analogous practice of painting the many fleeting scenes and situations that make up his diurnal doom stroll. Vignettes of solitude, kinship, exuberant beauty, and mundane quiddity are charged with a wistful awareness of precarity. At first glance, they do seem like things you might see shot with an iPhone, but the act of painting them, the thick wefted surface of paint is an emphatic pull. The burled white paint of the Mexican clouds of Live, Work, Pray recall those of Van Gogh, while the bristling squares of his structured brushstrokes vibrate Cezannian intensity, and yet the scene is one that can only be experienced today, the discordant logic of a chapel in front of a business below an apartment: a home that hums the quiet hymns of loneliness. Oil paint sticks, taking time to dry, an accretive process that adds gristle to the painted scene. Atlantic Avenue, perhaps Smith’s updated Boulevard des Capucines, becomes a study of taut geometries and variegated qualities of light: glinting off grills, streaking across the lucent hood of a car, refracted through tinted windows and the shadows of concrete girders. The standing figure on the left, presumably on his phone, appears like an updated angel of the annunciation from the 14th century, an avatar of anomic solitude in one of the boroughs busiest thoroughfares.
A longstanding part of Pablo Power’s practice has been to immerse himself with fringe communities encountered in places that most people don’t or can’t go to photograph. This fusion through friction carries over to his abstract painted work, a series of studies titled “Compass Points/Forming Patterns,” where the tropical neons of south Florida merge with the graphic medium on aerosol graffiti into bundles of suggestive botanica, Joan Miro and Hilma af Klint on bath salts. It’s like seeing the exotic perfection of a bird of paradise in a back alley in Winwood, a place that Power has seen undergo great change in his own life. Both skateboarding and graffiti share an adolescence in reckless parts of cities where you once could do these things, and Miami, San Francisco, and New York are the most flamboyant exemplars of gentrification, linking both artists. Baudelaire’s “painter of modern life” sketched glimpses of the disappearing world, the flaneur’s labor is to recognize what will soon be gone, not from a position of dispassionate privilege, but melancholic remove.
To be modern outside the lockstep of Modernism is to accept flux, to know that things can’t be fixed and to recognize that the things we see well never look that way again. This is a lesson we all learned over the break of early spring 2020. We don’t look to art to show us things we already know, but when we look we learn to recognize the incandescent mysteries of latent in everyday life. Power and Smith’s collaboration, which includes a video installation of their past lives as writers and skaters, reminds us that new modes of seeing can learned through a lifetime of entropy, new places can be made home, and kinship can be forged in fugitivity. The street never stands still.
Text by Ted Barrow