EMBEDDED TRUTHS: FIVE PAINTINGS BY ARVIE SMITH
Things that are personal become taboo in the art world, and [those things] shouldn’t be dismissed. — Artist Shinique Smith, speaking at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s Afrocosmologies panel, 2019
This essay examines a handful of selected works by Arvie Smith. Like a stone skipping across the water, it touches the surface of a larger body of deeper meaning, personal observations, and insights gleaned from interviewing the artist and his wife, Julie Kern Smith. Arvie Smith’s work is so damn beautiful. It is a beauty in its most potent form. It transcends and often ignores prescribed, fashionable, or popular aesthetics. Rooted in and charged by sensitively rendered figuration, Smith’s work resonates and is arresting because it emerges from embedded truths in American cultural history and his own lived experiences. The immovable truth in both is the reality of being an African American male, a state of always being both seen and unseen. It is a state of being that is hitched to a long arc of ugliness, of fear, of oppression, of exploitation, and of ridicule, all of which are stitched together into a tapestry of irrational hatred. In Smith’s paintings, the characters and characteristics that narrate the beautiful ugliness that accompanies American Blackness are always expertly rendered. His experienced eye, born into and informed by a childhood in the racist American South and the genteel but equally culpable American North, always saw what needed to be seen. Long before Smith’s mastery of his craft, a steady diet of racial injustice fed his thinking and became the ever-blossoming catalyst for his own heartfelt artistic journey. The catalog of his work over decades is the evidence of that journey. His beautiful works are the sweet, funny, twisted, and painful intellectual and psychological dramas birthed as he visually navigates the thicket of history surrounding the contradictions of race in America.
A line of truth can connect it all. —Berrisford Boothe
Armed with the knowledge of dynamic symmetry found in Renaissance compositional practices, as well as masterful and intuitive color harmony sensibilities, Arvie Smith has become one of the most identifiably gifted, and still inexplicably underrated, contemporary artists. That may be because America’s pathology around race and racial constructs is complicated and confusing at best. So a functional and vital symbiosis must exist between the mind, the heart, and the hand when Smith probes such gaping cultural wounds. Many African American artists illustrate this pain in art, but few simultaneously imbue their paintings and works of art with the pleasure of who we are. Arvie Smith holds these ugly truths to be self-evident and represents them through dramatic comedy, sarcasm, and as sardonic narratives. In major works like Strange Fruit (1992), Smith presents tragedy through a lens of hatred painted so beautifully it becomes a kaleidoscope of color and transparency that freezes the viewer in a moment of theatrical poetry. It is a major work about lynching, a form of American terror we elect not to talk about and a dark place from which to begin. But it is exactly Smith’s ability to extract beauty from the underbelly of a painful collective history that makes him a contemporary artist who should be considered as important as Robert Colescott or Kara Walker, each of whom have made works of art and built careers that also use racism to mock racism.
Simple things can be antidotes to public blindness. —Unknown
These works will be presented in a subjective sequence, although doing so entails the risk of them being perceived as stand-alone narratives. To reduce that possibility, the paintings have been selected specifically to establish linear, historical relationships. Each image exists both independently and as part of an ongoing truth about America itself. That truth: we are a nation still at war with ourselves. And, as Smith illustrates over and over, that ongoing war is still centered on the conflicted, race-based gaze of ‘white’ Americans at Black and brown Americans. The problem is always “how they see us.” The solution is how we see ourselves. In Arvie Smith’s works, both perspectives coexist.
Door of No Return presents the harsh historical truth about the conditions of commerce at Elmina Castle, Ghana, which was one of many points of no return that fed the Diaspora. This moment of inhumane disembodiment is interestingly embodied in the person of a young and physically spectacular Black man. His hands are chained, yet are positioned in such a way as to suggest a space of alchemy between them. These hands will help shape the New World. His facial features are unapologetically Black. He engages us directly and intimately with his gaze. The work is a two-way mirror. The subject sees us seeing him. The compositional portal, between the present and involuntary future, posits these questions: Are you OK with this? Are you aware of the brutal, and banal, and terrifyingly personal nature of the slave trade? What could possibly be redemptive about such a dark moment? But Smith paints this scene about a particularly heinous practice and does so in a manner that is incredibly personal. The painting seems to be illuminated from beneath its surface because of Smith’s initial red tonal glaze, which produces the perception of an inner glow that allows the viewer to see through the subject’s skin. This is a Black body, but the vibrant redness of earlier glazes intentionally suggests the blood pulsing throughout his body. As the sun makes the captive’s body translucent, it also casts a foreground shadow wherein exists an anguished spirit—trauma as phantasm. In his depiction of this point of captivity, Smith has introduced a metaphysical manifestation, a representation of the rolling tension of Blackness—the rage that must be subdued in order to survive. In Door of No Return, a simple scene of inhumane historical portraiture is presented as a subtle, intense dialogue about history, ancestry, race, and spirit(s).
Representation is critical to the maintenance of pride and inherent value. In its absence, African Americans are subject to directed misrepresentation and untruths born of observation or biases digested out of context. These are tactics designed to erode and dismiss human status and deny contributions by Black hands to the actual birth of this nation. There is a massive conceptual gap between being a slave and being enslaved. There is an equally massive and continuing misconception that sees all Blacks as threats within, and to, ‘white’ society. By extension, the disparity between ‘white’ imprisoned populations and incarcerated Blacks is seen not as an extension of slavery by immoral ‘Black Code’ laws during Reconstruction, but instead as part of a popular narrative that requires the untruth that Blacks are inherently more violent. In Slave Ship (1993), Smith conflates slavery in America with the gross, disproportionate imprisonment of Black bodies. He explains, “What I’m trying to say is he’s a captive, not a slave yet, but a captive—just like a slave. I was doing [this] before there was an emphasis on mass incarceration, but there’s always been an emphasis on mass incarceration in our communities. So, it’s just become a thing!”
Again, despite such dark and deflating subject matter, Arvie Smith presents us with an image of exquisite beauty punctuated with secondary characters that act as a dramatic and ominous chorus of forms. The central character, the prisoner, wears the striped prison garb that indicts him as guilty. But Smith has rendered him in a profile of immense dignity. He is a beautiful man, chiseled and regal in posture, who looks away from the gaze of the viewer. He is not concerned at all with “how they see us.” Most striking and revealing of the man’s frame of mind are his hands. They are the form closest to the viewer. His left arm, identical in tone to his face, comes up from the right and clasps his other hand, which is both luminous from the underpainting and reflective of the sun. These hands are representations of delicate strength. All of Smith’s work proclaims the same thing: it’s not just about the figure(s). The figure(s) become the pigment, the pigment becomes the skin, the skin becomes light. Everything serves multiple roles, which results in a kind of visual dexterity and vibrancy and brilliance that African-influenced art must always have. In Slave Ship, Smith offers us a glimpse into his own psychology as an artist. His objective is to depict and play with the elements that he knows will focus us, expose our prejudices, enrage us, and switch our emotions on and off. Beauty isn’t static in Arvie Smith’s art; it is an orchestrated system for active looking.
This painting incorporates an iconic and familiar image lifted from one of the innumerable commercial items available during the Jim Crow period of American history. As a contrast to the emancipation of enslaved Blacks, inflammatory and negative imagery such as this became part of the currency of oppression. Derisive imagery of Black men, women, and children was used to sell products and literally became a new means of metaphysical and psychological ownership. Objectification was an effective throwback to the familiar sentiment of the negationist ‘Lost Cause’ ideology: a kind of “I used to own you, and still do” wounding of the collective Black ego. A product like Gold Dust Washing Powder has imagery that implies that it is strong enough to wash away what is black and dirty until it becomes clean and white. Think about that. A whole host of images, terms, and brand names were aimed at damaging Black culture’s sense of self-worth and legitimate humanity, including ‘Sambo,’ ‘Pickaninny,’ ‘Jigaboo,’ ‘Coon,’ ‘Jim Crow,’ ‘Mammy,’ ‘Darkie,’ ‘Black-Faced Minstrel,’ and ‘Jolly Nigger.’
Smith appropriates the Gold Dust twins and situates them under a banner with the offering “Let Us Do Your Work.” Here—as it was for those who found power in producing such negative imagery—subtlety is not an option. A grin is not always a smile. An alligator shows its teeth, but it is definitely not smiling. The showing of teeth has a different meaning when an entire culture is under attack. Each character in this painting bears a smile that hides the rage mentioned earlier—a rage that must be subdued in order to survive. At one end of the arch, across from the Black ”savage,” is a Christian minister/priest in a pot, being boiled. The silence of the church throughout hundreds of years of vile oppression can easily be read here as its own form of savagery.
In the early twentieth century, pejorative and demeaning representations of Blacks were widespread both in commonly available products and in new media forms like radio and moving pictures. Bojango Ascending the Stairs is the most compositionally packed and overtly staged of Smith’s works so far. The inspiration for this masterwork came from, in Smith’s words, “the movie The Little Colonel, with Shirley Temple, who is the figure up at the top left. She did a dance scene with Bojangles [Bill “Bojangles” Robinson], and they were dancing up the stairs. Now what we didn’t know was that Bojangles was not allowed to touch Shirley Temple. So, I’m turning that on its head.” That is precisely what Arvie Smith does in this beautifully choreographed reference to a moment from a “classic” film that made clear what the absolute boundaries were at the time for relationships between Black men and ‘white’ women. Intimacy was forbidden.
The nucleus of ‘white’ fear and racism is the fear of the primal Black savage “taking” their pristine ‘white’ women. So entrenched is this fear that D. W. Griffith made it the dominant plot point in his epic, controversial, and racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Here, Smith tackles this tangled trope of psychological projection. As in the majority of his most complex works, the painting is packed with references. At the top right, in the far distance, are the Massa’s mansion and the slave sheds. A trumpeter with inflated cheeks sounds the trumpet, which in cultural and religious contexts cues celebration, jubilee, or a declaration of war with the promise of salvation. The Jemima mammy is a witness to the central act of desire. Shirley Temple, hands clasped, looks past her own “innocence” to the reimagined central act, a more forceful and erotic fantasy involving Bill Robinson. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s signature routine was tap-dancing on stairs. Stairs take center stage in this drama. The term bojango, in contrast, has a lewd urban etymology referencing exposed female breasts and sexual organs.
The arms of the one-eyed grinning Sambo contain the radial dynamism of this full-on challenge to intimacy between Black and ‘white’. His grin is not a smile. His teeth, chomping on his cigar and enclosed by his inflated, cartoonish lips, represent the projected predatory menace of Black men—projected onto them by ‘white’ men. In fact, American history affirms that it was far more common for ‘white’ men to prey upon the Black female body. Sambo’s left hand appears to be spreading a woman’s leg. His right arm has just thrown the dice, a gamble that comes up snake eyes: a losing bet. Arvie Smith loves the female body. He elevates female sensuality and sexuality above objectification. Smith’s women understand their own sexual power and display it with potency and confrontational flair. Her nipples erect, submitting to desire, this woman has multiple legs that animate the activity and create a radial dynamism akin to that of Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 masterwork Nude Descending a Staircase. Embodying desire and intimacy are Bojango’s large, oversized hands, underpainted with a red glaze to overtly suggest the heightened blood flow of impassioned eroticism.
We may have visually unpacked this complex work, but Smith’s actual meaning remains shifting and elusive. Certainly, he’s dealing with taboos. “But,” he says, “there’s more than one part in there. One is taboos—but if you notice in the lower left corner, there’s a lady that’s picking cotton.” That woman and the average ‘white’ man observing the scene, and the Confederate flag behind Shirley Temple, are representations of what Smith calls “eye traps.” The harsher truths expressed in Bojango Ascending the Stairs involve tensions between different classes of Blacks in antebellum America (late 1700s to 1861). “You’ve got your ‘field negroes’ picking cotton, and you got your ‘house negro’ [Bojango], who is kind of an insult—doing whatever,” Smith says. “Bojango would have been a ‘house negro.’ All of the slave rebellions were betrayed by ‘house negroes.’ So, you [to maintain Black authenticity] want to be identified as a ‘field negro,’ not a Bojango.” Woven throughout this complex stage-set narrative, this cacophony of rhythm and symbolism, is the painful thread of “how they see us.”
The colloquial use of the phrase “betta dance now” refers to an event horizon— the moment when indecision and tomfoolery must be replaced by decisive and assertive action. For Smith, the phrase has a family connection. “My great-grandmother, born a slave, was of African and Native American descent. And one of her sayings was, ‘You betta dance now, if you’re gwonna dance at all.’ And that’s where I got that from.” In the image are two women, one ‘white’ and one Black. The ship of possibility sits silhouetted on the horizon. “It’s not a slave ship,” Smith says, “but it represents that. It represents commerce, which is what we were.” Betta Dance Now presents an autobiographical narrative. Painted earlier in his career, it’s a master class in color harmony and elegant linear control.
The face of the (literally) colored Black woman is ubiquitous in Smith’s catalog of works. Her features are resonant. Smith agrees. “They say that you paint people in your family, and I’m looking at a painting that’s on the wall right now, and yes, I’m seeing that face also as kinda like a male face. So yeah, I think you do return to people that look like the people that you see, which is what I’ve been taught to do.” In fact, symbolically speaking, that woman’s face is Arvie Smith’s.
The other figure is a ‘white’ female. She has a resolute beauty and a piercing, unwavering stare. Clad in a red-orange tutu, she has visual priority although she is smaller in size and appears behind the larger Black woman. Her erect stature and tense hand, extracting the redness of passion from the light reflected off of her dress, stand in stark contrast to the sinewy, rhythmic dancing movements of her counterpart. What is their relationship? What is the origin story here? Smith explains, “When I first met Julie, she said, ‘You’re a pretty good artist, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m really good.’ She said, ‘Why don’t you quit your job and go to art school?’ And it’s kinda [her saying], ‘You better dance now, if you’re gwonna dance at all.’ You don’t get that many more chances.” The girl in the back (inarguably his wife, Julie) is also interesting because she represents to Smith an omnipresent spirit who guides him in intangible and mysterious ways. “She’s pushing that figure forward. But you can look at it as the artist who cannot really get away from himself. When you paint a picture, you really expose yourself, and that little white girl is pushing me forward. You know what I’m saying? I’m talking about the forces, they come from somewhere, but I think they have something to do with the universe talking to you. You’re not consciously aware of what’s going on, but you know something is going on that relates to your cosmic being. There are times when I don’t feel that I’m in control of it. In my own situation, where do I get these ideas from? Well, it has to be the courtship.”
Art is a jealous muse. Sometimes she’s the only one who allows the artist to say what he or she really wants to say. The artist must pay attention. And as in any real relationship, if he or she is dominating the process, and denying the materials their power, and telling them what to do, it doesn’t work so well. The more powerful you are with the craft, the more vulnerable you have to be to allow these forces to communicate the truth. At a pivotal point in his career as an emerging artist, Smith listens and takes a big swing toward the greatness he knows he can achieve. Nothing here is about relenting or surrendering. This is a painting that demands that you straighten up your spine and look. Julie Kern Smith recalls, “This was a painting he did for his New York show. His first and only. I think this is a reflection of a kind of ‘I’m going for this’ [attitude]. This painting, when I look at it—it was impossible for him to put down the palette. He’s just going for it!” In this painting, Smith’s clever organization of space creates the fundamental chords on which he hangs the melody that his Black female gender-twin dances to. It is such a charged image. It has hints of methods and techniques that will resurface in Smith’s work for decades to come. He’s been challenged to be his best by the love of his muse, and Betta Dance Now makes it irrefutably clear that Arvie Smith has all the moves. He started dancing then and hasn’t come close to stopping. “You notice how I’m balancing all of those organic shapes with the ship? And the horizon?” says the mature artist of his earlier work. “I’m really glad you chose this one. It’s one of my all-time favorites,” says Julie, the muse who inspired it.
This deep dive into the translatable meaning intentionally crafted into these five paintings reveals Smith’s mastery of the craft of painting and of placing signifying “eye traps,” as well as his necessary passion for speaking truth to the viewer. His paintings are all reflections of the peculiar state of being that is Blackness in America, and being a Black male in particular. Context is the springboard for meaningful understanding. And Smith loads each work for that through compositional dynamism and visually sensual figuration. Yes, he is working with deep-rooted and difficult themes that trigger real emotional ire. But his are not paintings about anger as much as they are using anger, outrage, and the unsettling tensions of Blackness as thematic pathways to redemptive images of hope. Smith points out that he’s not making paintings to go over people’s couches. No doubt. But interestingly, despite such gut-wrenching themes and scenes, everything Arvie Smith paints, he elevates. His directed, eloquent, and sublimely painterly hand fashions images that pulse with beauty. And these ugly and hate-filled and embarrassing themes are not made beautiful by anger. In the end, Smith works “within an artistic convention, making pieces that I want people to look at. They have to have their identity. They have to be readable, because art is a language, painting is a language, like the English language or German. You have to learn the grammar, which is the drawing and the painting. And the composition is the context/syntax.”
The phrase used when making amends is “truth and reconciliation.” Smith’s larger message is one of reconciliation—the healing of the histories that divide us. If we can’t talk about what affects our humanity deeply and honestly—if we can’t face uncomfortable truths—then we have no mechanism for empathetic understanding. That is why Smith maintains a commitment to beauty in his work. He attracts us to that which is uncomfortable by using the medium and his aggregate skills as points of entry for empathy and understanding—no matter how bitter his narratives seem to be at first glance. Smith says, “My mother told me once: ‘Son, never forget who you’re dealing with.’” Truth. But he also says, perfectly summing things up: “Until we can see that love in other people, and see that in ourselves, things aren’t gonna change. We’ve gotta see other people in ourselves.” Amen.
(( Catalog available: Arvie Smith: 2 Up and 2 Back ))
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BERRISFORD BOOTHE is a full professor of art at Lehigh University, where he has taught beginning and advanced studio practice in drawing, painting, and design. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he has had a visible and well-established presence in the Eastern US art scene for over thirty years, and has carefully crafted a career as a painter, digital artist, printmaker, photographer, installation artist, lecturer, and curator. Boothe is a listed but inactive member of the June Kelly Gallery in New York City; Philadelphia art dealer and consultant Sande Webster continues to represent and sell his work. For a period of five years, he belonged to a collective of professional artists at the Banana Factory Arts Center in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His work has been featured in exhibitions at the Wadsworth Athe- neum Museum of Art (Hartford, CT); the William Benton Museum of Art (Storrs, CT); the Allentown Art Museum (Allentown, PA); the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY); the Fabric Workshop and Museum (Philadelphia, PA); the African American Museum in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, PA); the New Arts Program (Kutztown, PA); and the State Museum of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA).
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