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.
Strange Fruit, the painting, has a tough soberness that opens up in most of the other paintings to an almost ribald fierceness– a scabrous, funny, lush, and somehow lovingly satiric vision pocked with vulgar and uncomfortable images from American history.
The paintings are downright transgressive, and from that rubbing-together of attraction and repulsion they draw their power and scandalous charm. Aunt Jemima and Buckwheat from the Little Rascals show up for the dance, along with little Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who in 2014’s Bojangles Ascending the Stairs is suavely clutching a bare-breasted white woman in pre-coital position while a grinning monkey-face coon figure chomping on a stogie leers from behind. On these large linens and canvases trumpets blow, movie cameras whir, Confederate flags wave, horses’ nostrils flare. In 2006’s Trail of Tears chains rattle and a black lad fiddles for the crowd amid the bustle of a Baltimore slave market that puts a ruthless price tag on many a pound of newly landed African flesh. The paintings fairly drip with lush sexuality, rounded women black and white playing with cultural notions of free and easy carnality. Temptation, miscegenation, and moral downfall are just around the corner.
Smith, who was born in 1938, is approaching his ninth decade, and he’s packed a lot into his years, from childhood in Texas to his teen years in South Central Los Angeles to Baltimore and Portland and a stretch studying printmaking in Italy and a long career teaching while he made his own art. He’s lived his life as an artist and a black man and a citizen in a troubled world, and his awareness of all three comes together in his work, which is historically sophisticated and fully engaged in the issues of the day, from the distortions of the entertainment industry to the recent string of police attacks on black men and boys in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and elsewhere.
Created between 1992 and this year, the works in his new APEX show are mature and confident and of a piece – socially confrontative and visually seductive. They are obviously his and also aligned with the work of other, older artists, maybe most tellingly with the vigorous and witty paintings of Robert Colescott, the great visual satirist who established his career while teaching at Portland State University in the 1950s and ’60s. You can also see elements of some of the more overtly political work of the 1930s-40s African American painter Horace Pippin, such as John Brown Going to His Hanging and The Whipping, a 1941 painting of a black slave being whipped while a plantation overseer watches impassively in the background.
In 2004’s We Be Lovin’ It, Smith makes his knowledge of art history explicit, plopping a shock-haired Buckwheat in place of Edvard Munch’s tortured shouter in The Scream. (Several paintings in the show make full use of their titles for ironic effect: 2014’s Hands Up Don’t Shoot, painted in response to the Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown, shows a smiling Aunt Jemima, both hands up and holding plates stacked high with pancakes, looking as conspicuously jovial and unthreatening as possible.) Other connections are less immediate, and may or may not be intentional but indicate Smith’s deep familiarity with the history of painting. His several voluptuarian figures, from the sleek-muscled, almost randy-looking lynchers in Strange Fruit to the women in House of Cards, Luciana Dancing with Angels, and Dem Golden Slippers to the smooth dancer in Bojangles Ascending the Stairs, bring to mind the idealized realism of Thomas Hart Benton in his America Today mural and other paintings. When my wife, Laura, saw Black Pigment, Smith’s gorgeous 2007 painting of a bright and sharply angled banjo player, she whipped out her cell phone, did a quick search of Rembrandt’s paintings, and found what she was looking for, the National Gallery London’s Belshazzar’s Feast – structurally, a pretty good match.
Smith’s APEX show dominates a large end of the museum’s compact Northwest art gallery, and it has a few echoes nearby. Ross Palmer Beecher’s Steerage III, a mixed-media image of black figures stacked up aboard a slave ship, is around a corner and down a few yards. And Brothers Fhree, Isaka Shamsud-Din’s wonderful 1990 scene of black life around a pool table in a crowded tavern, takes up much of a wall right before the installation of Smith’s show. Shamsud-Din’s palette, that sort of bright love of color that makes me think of the gradual flowering of Godfrey Cambridge’s costumes as he transforms from a white man into a black man in the movie Watermelon Man, is similar to Smith’s brilliant colors.
A key difference is that Brothers Fhree concerns itself strictly with black cultural life, and Smith’s APEX paintings, while very much made from a black perspective, seem also to be a potent conversation with the larger culture. Here are the popular images of who and what you think we are, they seem to say. I’m going to mix them up and throw them back at you. Now what do you think? The fact that they are both deeply disturbing and deeply pleasurable speaks volumes.
APEX: Arvie Smith continues through November 13 in the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Northwest Art of the Portland Art Museum, 111 S.W. Park Avenue. Details here.