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Paul M. SmithReview - Paul M. Smith
Photographs
by Paul M. Smith
Goliath Books, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Dec 13th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 51)

Most of Paul Smith's photography depicts scenes from British male culture.  There's a cartoonish, theatrical element to it enhanced by the fact that all the men in each set of themed work are the same man, created through the tricks of digital photography.  For example, in Robbie Williams, we see scenes from British soccer.  Fans pose for the camera with their faces painted, shouting and gesturing towards to the photographers. All the fans are Williams himself.  In another picture, two teams are paused in the middle of a game while one player lies unconscious on the field and a streaker is in the distance.  The referee blows his whistle.  Again, all the man are in fact Williams.  Outside the stadium in another image, a group of British bobbies, complete with their helmets, hang around with their hands in their pockets talking to each other, one relieving himself against a wall, while a bookie is in the foreground, wearing a brash pinstripe suit and a self-satisfied expression on his face, expecting to make a handsome profit on the day.  The day is gray and you can see the raindrops hitting the water puddles on the street, a typical British Saturday. 

In another series of photographs, Make My Night, Smith depicts the excesses of a boy's night out.  In one, set in a pub, a man sits at a table cluttered with empty beer glasses, in front of a dart board, with a condom pulled down over his face down to his upper lip.  Next to him, another man clutching a beer laughing while on the other side another man aims a lit cigarette at the tip of the condom.  Of course, all three men are the same man, presumably Smith himself.  In the next image, the boys are back at someone's house, posing for the camera.  The central figure holds a cucumber out from his crotch, leaning backwards, while another man, cigarette in one hand, kneels down and theatrically puckers up kissing the cucumber.  Behind them, one man stands on a couch, clutching his beer, smiling at the camera and another man grimaces at the camera, wearing a union jack plastic hat.  The fact that all these men are the same man is more striking in this image, making it both funny and disorienting. 

Some of this has echoes of the work of Martin Parr, the documentarian of British life shot in garish colors. These are not artistic subjects of quiet melancholy, but rather the drunken excesses of night life, the exercises of army troops, the crowd dynamics of soccer games, or the action hero of the movies.  But Smith's work is consciously artistic in its manipulation of the image, and the extremely posed nature of every shot.  He is showing some of the stereotypes of masculinity, examining them with a wry amusement and a sense of fun, rather than the feminist outrage that often generates photography that concerns gender. 

The most unconventional set of pictures in the book is This Is Not Pornography.  Here Smith plays with gender and sexuality.   In one image, Smith, without his shirt, looks into the bathroom mirror, and sees reflected a topless woman.  In another, more inspired by the gestures of pornography, he is himself topless with breasts, and he holds one breast up while extending his tongue in an effort to lick his own nipple.  In an inversion of this image, he sits in a chair in front of a James Bond poster, as a naked hermaphrodite, his open legs revealing a vagina.  He wears a thick moustache to heighten the contrast between his masculinity and femininity.  One striking picture has Smith joined to a woman lying in a bath, both of them looking as if they are experiencing sexual ecstacy.  Their bodies are joined at the buttocks, so they are one person.  Maybe the strangest picture of the set has Smith lying on a flowery sofa.  His legs and buttocks are on the wrong way around, so his genitals are facing downwards and his chest is facing up.  He leans forward getting ready to plunge a long rubber dildo into himself.  His face is set in a grimace. 

These images do more to call into question social norms of gender and the expectations of masculinity.  While there's still a sense of fun here, and an enjoyment of the absurd, these images are more transgressive; they give very little sense of a celebration of masculinity.  They help to inform his latest series of images, Free Range, which also has the strongest narrative theme of all his works.  It starts with Smith dressed in camouflage holding a rifle aiming at a deer in the distance, with the body of another deer lying in the foreground.  They are in the beautiful woods of England, and there's a contrast between the glint of the sun off the gun metal and the deep green of the trees and the grass.  Smith is then shown gutting and skinning a deer, in graphic images that seem entirely realistic.  The final image shows him cooking the deer on a campfire, with the deer skin stretched out on a wooden rack, with an old relic of a castle in the background.  This last image is more obviously digitally constructed, since the dusk and the fire seem artificially created with software, and the castle in the background looks like it was pasted in.  In his short commentary on this series, Alistair Hayman points out that Smith is making references to the Dutch masters in these images, and this does help to illuminate Smith's intentions.  On face value, these pictures seem neutral about this killing and eating, and might be interpreted as simply at attempt to shock the viewer.  But when one compares this series with the others in the book, one notices the lack of any lightheartedness here.  Without being a straightforward condemnation of hunting or masculinity, these pictures are disconcerting.  The last image in particular has Smith looking into the camera while sitting on the ground.  He is eating a piece of meat with his hands, and he looks angry and suspicious.  Far from a noble savage or a man at one with nature, this depicts more of a decline of civilization.  The deer hasn't been killed because he needs the meat or the skin: since he is clearly well fed and has his own clothes.  The killing is rather an exhibition of masculinity: the skin will be used for display or decoration, as are the other trophies in the rest of the book.  Given that this work was created in 2003, it is natural to interpret it as a reflection on aggression and even war, which would make it a return to the topic of Smith's first work, Artists Rifles.

Smith's work is memorable and interesting.  It works at a conceptual level and makes little attempt to achieve beauty; it is attractive because of its playfulness and readiness to provoke. Recommended.

 

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Link: Publisher's web page for book

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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