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If I seem to harp on Samella Lewis, the artist and chronicler of African-American art history, it’s because she brought something important to town.
Lewis, 81, spoke on the history of African-American art Saturday at the Arkansas Arts Center, an event put forward by Garbo Hearne of Hearne Fine Art, where Lewis’ work is now on exhibit. Lewis’ age means that she knows many of the 20th century artists she’s chronicled. She was a student of the great African-American sculptor and artist Elizabeth Catlett, and while teaching art history at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., she published “African-American Art and Artists” and helped found the journal “The International Review of African-American Art.”
Lewis has spent a lifetime creating art and working to widen the audience for African-American talent. (She is herself one of the bright lights of that group; the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and other art institutions include it among their collections.)
Her audience Saturday was smaller than it should have been but appreciative nevertheless. This was no esoteric Art Forum spiel about black art forms; Lewis focused instead on the lives of the artists, from Henry Tanner to Sam Gilliam, and how their work fits into the lineage of black art history. She talked about a donated collection of art a museum stored in its basement because the artist was over-hued and under-appreciated. About the rejection of Harlem Renaissance painters by their brethren because the pictures they painted were too “black.” Of work by black artists bought on the cheap. Of the need for a new generation of artists to make sure the world knows there is more to African-American art than Jacob Lawrence.
Hearne has made sure that local art lovers have no excuse not to know the work of Lewis. Her gallery is exhibiting a small sample of what visitors will recognize as the work of a master artist: monoprints, linocuts and paintings, work that is among the best currently hanging on the walls of Little Rock’s galleries. The work includes older geometrical black and white lithographs — like tamed Motherwells — and new paintings and prints, portraits of people front and center who look directly into the face of the viewer. With the oil “No Justice, No Peace,” Lewis shows no uncertainty in how she wants to compose, lay down her medium and what palette works. It depicts a man in a yellow cap playing a guitar; his forehead is a swirl of hot reds and yellows, his hands are a cool yellow green. The title is worked into the background, a flat aggregate of multi-textured color. She is unafraid of fauvist color, which she combines with sensuous line to create “Swamp Diva.” The brushstrokes in her monoprints are controlled abstraction, suggesting hair, movement, light without being literal — the product of genius. Her monoprint portrait of a woman with a baby sets the light brown infant against the mother’s pale lemon dress; a wash of black adds weightlessness.
A portrait series of a woman through time juxtaposes of a series of arcs to describe hat, face, neck, blouse. In youth the skin is dark and the hat is light; in middle age the skin has lightened and the hat has darkened. In old age, the woman has become a beautiful inky blue with a smear of red lips.
White folks who shy away from African-American art because it depicts people that don’t look like them and feelings that bother them are losing out big time. They have until Nov. 7 to see Lewis’ work at Hearne.