When Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol’s mercilessly beautiful song about a lynching, at Café Society in Greenwich Village in 1939 and into the ’40s, it became something of a benediction: she would close her show with it, the waiters would stop serving, the room would darken, no encore followed. It was if the audience had entered a place at once blasphemous and holy, a hollow where time stopped in the presence of the unutterable, and the thing itself was dirty but the memorization of it, the acknowledgement of its awful reality, was somehow purifying: we have seen evil, and felt its power, and by facing it we have somehow made it lesser and ourselves more.
Arvie Smith’s 1992 painting of the same title and theme performs some of the same functions in his current APEX Northwest artists series show at the Portland Art Museum, and it also acts as an oversize calling card for the other nine paintings in the exhibition. Grandly scaled at 92 x 70 inches, it overwhelms viewers with the hyperreality of an American scene: the lynching of a nearly naked black man by a gang of white men whose muscles ripple beneath the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Like an American Jesus on a Southern cross, the black man lets his head slump sideward in defeat; the rope slung over the tree limb and tied around his neck seems almost as thick as his arm. The two men stringing him up seem almost to strut with pride. Near the bottom right corner, at the level where a dog might look out, two malevolent red-rimmed eyes stare from slits in a Klan hood.