It was, first of all, an early casualty of the pandemic.
Arvie Smith: Scarecrow was originally intended for the winter of 2021, explained curator John Olbrantz, who met Smith around the time Hallie Ford opened in 1998 and had always wanted to show his work. But with COVID-19 running hot at the time, the exhibition was delayed.
Meanwhile, Smith, being a working artist, sold some of the paintings to collectors from coast to coast. Olbrantz had curated the exhibition specifically for the Willamette University-affiliated museum’s largest space, so when he learned that nearly half the pieces included were no longer an hour’s drive north on I-5, he launched the ambitious project of chasing them down and persuading the new owners to lend them.
“I’ve got file folders full of these loan documents, and there’s all the correspondence that goes with it,” Olbrantz said, holding his hands a couple of feet apart to illustrate the volume. “I mean, it was crazy. It was quite the process. Fortunately, Arvie and his wife, Julie, stepped in and said to the new owners, ‘Look these are important pieces, and this is an important exhibition for Arvie.’”
That work was well worth the effort, because the exhibition of 26 paintings continuing through March 26 in the Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery and the Maribeth Collins Lobby is stunning — both as an aesthetic experience and as an extraordinarily rich exploration of American history, culture, and racial injustice by a nationally recognized Black painter who has made Oregon his home since 1995.
“My voice is art,” Smith says in a statement quoted in the elegant hardback catalog that accompanied the late-2019/early-2020 pre-pandemic show 2 Up and 2 Back at the Disjecta Contemporary Art Center (now Oregon Center for Contemporary Art) in Portland. “I try to use it to engage people to maybe think differently. In using that voice, I try to do it in such a way that people will hear it.”
“Art was drawing white people”
Smith was born in 1938 and raised in Roganville, Texas, by grandparents after his parents separated. His grandfather was the principal at a Black-only grade and high school as well as a history teacher at an all-Black college. His grandmother was also a teacher, and being raised in the home of educators impressed upon Smith the liberating value of learning and reading. As a fifth-grader diving into a book about Michelangelo, Smith came away with the idea, among other things, that “art was drawing white people,” he says in the catalog.
When he was 10, Smith and his siblings were packed off to South Central Los Angeles, where the picture-maker in him continued to emerge. “I was the guy in high school who did the football game posters and all that stuff,” he said during a visit to the Hallie Ford in February with his wife, Julie Kern Smith. “I was the artist.”
After California, Smith lived in British Columbia and Idaho in the 1960s and early 1970s before he landed in Portland in 1976 when it was in the throes of Blazermania. He spent a few years as a psychiatric technician and a drug and alcohol counselor before enrolling in the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) in 1982.
There, while studying under Gordon Gilkey, Ann Johnson, Paul Missal, Sherrie Wolf, and Christy Wyckoff, Smith came under the influence of another Black Portland artist, the taboo-shattering painter Robert Colescott, who died in 2009. These conversations, described in a catalog essay by Daniel Duford, clearly had a powerful impact on the direction of his work. Four years later, Smith became the first African-American to graduate from the then-77-year-old PNCA.
The truth about Steamboat Willie
To take in any one of the 26 paintings in Arvie Smith: Scarecrow is to confront a visually bold and audacious potpourri of imagery that is alternately beautiful and horrifying, and sometimes even buoyant and whimsical, as it unpacks the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States. It’s almost impossible to do justice to the pieces with a paragraph or two, and it is perhaps with that humble recognition that Olbrantz decided to not even try. The labels that accompany each piece limit themselves to the title, year, and medium. For those who need some assistance, once again, the catalog is invaluable and an absorbing experience itself.
After earning his MFA in 1992 from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Smith stayed on the East Coast for a few years to teach, including time spent as a teaching assistant to famed abstract expressionist Grace Hartigan. Smith returned to Oregon in 1995 to teach at PNCA, where he worked as a professor until retiring eight years ago.
Raised by teachers and a professional teacher himself, Smith is obviously the person you want helping you unpack his startling imagery, which is what happened last month when he and Julie spent a couple hours with museum docents, a documentarian, and me.
“I use a lot of symbols,” Smith said as we walked along, explaining one aspect of his work that makes his paintings such a treasure trove of meaning, filled with what one catalog essayist describes as “eye traps.” “Symbols are important. Black people pay a lot of attention to advertising, and advertising is how stereotypes are propagated. The first advertisements were for the sales of slaves, and the sale of runaways. This was the first form of advertisement in America, so Aunt Jemima is a part of those derogatory symbols of African Americans, and we know, when we look at these, that they’re talking about us.”
In the United States, over time, racist imagery like this has effectively fused symbolism with iconography. “She’ll be around forever,” Smith said. “Even though Aunt Jemima isn’t on the pancake mix anymore, she’s still around, and everyone knows.”
The exhibition is a startling lesson in the visual vocabulary of 20th-century American racism. In 2 Up and 2 Back, one essayist remarks that Smith’s 2013 piece Bojangles Ascending the Stairs (which is in the Salem show) is “a painting that demands that you straighten up your spine and look.” But that’s true of virtually any of Smith’s paintings, where mammy figures such as Aunt Jemima may be found along with the Cream of Wheat chef, Sambo, and representations of Black performers on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
There are even famous cartoon characters, including the most famous, ostensibly wholesome, anthropomorphic rodent ever drawn.
“Mickey Mouse is really a racist image,” Smith said, as we huddled around the cautiously optimistic City Gate, a 2009 oil on canvas on loan from Portland Community College. A Black woman claps her hands while dancing in front of a gate, beckoning the viewer with an expression that’s hard to read. The piece was inspired by the election of Barack Obama, who gazes pensively from the upper right corner. From the lower left corner, Walt Disney’s Mickey seems to gesture to the spectacle, having flung a pair of dice that has yet to land. One of his legs is bound by a ball and chain.
“Mickey Mouse started out as Steamboat Willie, which is one of the most racist cartoons you’ll ever see and Disney did the most racist cartoon ever,” Smith explained. In his book Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, author Nicholas Sammond takes this up in greater detail: “Commercial animation in the United States didn’t borrow from blackface minstrelsy, nor was it simply influenced by it,” he writes. “Rather, American animation is actually in many of its most enduring incarnations an integral part of the ongoing iconographic and performative traditions of blackface. Mickey Mouse isn’t like a minstrel; he is a minstrel.”
City Gate prompted a lengthy discussion, as both Smith and visitors ticked off the various images packed into the piece: Harriet Tubman holding a rifle, a crime scene outline of a body, blue waves, a representation of 9/11, and smoke billowing up from a mosque that morphs into the former President’s dark suit — an allusion to efforts by conservative pundits at the time to suggest that Obama was really a Muslim.
“Some of these things, I don’t know where they come from,” Smith said, noting a footprint face in the lower right of the City Gate. “My hand is only an instrument of my mind, it’s all up here, and it comes out here, but sometimes I don’t know what’s going to come out.”
Canvases crowded with ideas
City Gate began with the image of the first Black American President. But like many of his paintings, the initial image serves as a springboard into a spectacular meditation on ideas. “I can’t just go into the studio and spit in the wind,” Smith says in the catalog’s discussion of Fact Checker, in which “a cacophony of institutional abjections” is presided over by the painting’s central image: Adam and Eve. The 72-by-60-inch 2019 oil features dozens of images crammed together, including two former American presidents. The world’s first parents are flanked in the top corners by Abraham Lincoln slapping a slave on the left and Donald Trump, depicted as a clown trapeze artist, on the right. “I have some narrative I’m trying to get across,” Smith says. “Sometimes I try to fit in quite a few narratives in one piece. Someone described my work as ‘crowded canvases’ — well, they’re crowded with ideas.”
Trump makes another appearance as a clown in the exhibition’s largest piece, a 2019 diptych titled Circus Circus on 5th Avenue, inspired by Trump’s claim that he could shoot someone in the middle of New York City’s Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. Here, the clown stands on a carousel horse firing a pistol at a Black woman who has shot an arrow at him from the horse in front of him. The carousel functions as a chaotic circus stage, in front of which more than two dozen spectators are lined up, whites on the left, mostly Blacks on the right.
We got a real-time illustration of the fact that sometimes, even years later, Smith sees elements in his own paintings that he has either forgotten or perhaps wasn’t entirely conscious of when he painted. Someone observed that one of the spectators is a blond woman turned in profile, looking both sad and disgusted by the scene behind her.
“Is that Hillary Clinton?” someone asked.
A chorus of surprised recognition rose from the group, and Smith laughed along with them, appearing to see for the first time what was possibly going on there: A visual cue for “I told you so.”
These bold, expressionistic paintings are indeed fantastically crowded, and with more than two dozen of them, one is easily overwhelmed by it all and the weight of history that Smith brilliantly both unpacks and repackages. You simply need to see it, and prepare to stiffen your spine. I think it best to end not with my words, but with Smith’s artistic statement posted next to Circus Circus on 5th Avenue:
“My work is informed by public discourse, advertising, news media, pop culture, and daily micro-aggressive assaults on Black people. My paintings reveal normalized and commonly accepted inequities born out of privilege based solely on skin tone. I intend to expose and flip narratives designed to interfere with truth, advancement, and release from the chains that have given rise to a dominance hierarchy.
“My themes focus on race, identity, equality and ultimately the resilience of those for whom our government has deemed to bear the weight of an unjust system. As a Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow era, I am heavily influenced by the systemic racial oppression I have seen throughout my life, starting from peonage, sharecropping, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, white flight, redlining to gentrification.
“We live in a daunting time, and American politics on race and identity are explosive to the point where America appears to be on the precipice of a cliff. Overt demonstrations of bias, racism and hate at all levels of the American citizenry are chilling. We must ask ourselves what it will take to find the equilibrium to stop further erosion of our society.”