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Art Facts: the haunting magic of Hughie Lee-Smith



At 73, painter Hughie Lee-Smith has returned to Chicago. A major retrospective--50 paintings from the last 50 years--currently on display at the Cultural Center reveals that in many ways he is still the eager, energetic young man who arrived in Chicago as a Navy recruit in 1943. Fresh out of art school, he was assigned then to paint three WPA murals at the Great Lakes Naval Station.

"They were on the theme of the history of the Negro in U.S. history," Lee-Smith recounts in his quiet, orator-perfect voice. "They were intended to build morale with black recruits," he adds drolly, noting that two of General Washington's oarsmen as he crossed the Delaware were black. "Things like that, and they were good training," he says. "That's what I did during the day. But at night I would come into the city--every night.

"For a serviceman, everything was free," he recalls. "And for his wife, too, everything--even hotel suites at the best hotels." He pauses, then notes, "Provided, of course, you had your marriage license with. That was a big thing, the marriage license."

Young Lee-Smith took advantage of the city's openness to go everywhere--to the Art Institute, the theater (where he remembers seeing Paul Robeson in Othello), to concerts, and to the newly formed South Side Community Art Center. Black visual artists, writers, musicians, and poets congregated at the center for a lively exchange of ideas and art. Among them were many leading citizens of today's black art community--artist and DuSable Museum founder Margaret Goss Burroughs, painter Rex Goreleigh, and poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

The technical discipline by day and the cultural exposure by night set both Lee-Smith's philosophical direction and his aesthetic course.

"I have always thought that this part of the midwest affected the character of my palette," Lee-Smith acknowledges. "The climate, the weather--dark, dreary, lugubrious days that darkened the colors.

"Those years in Chicago--maybe two years, in all--also affected the way I see things politically, socially, philosophically."

You can see that point of view developing in the early post-Chicago years. In the late 1930s and throughout the 40s, he had experimented with the images and coloration of social realism, focusing on somber portraits of waiflike black children. But by the early 1950s, the fey, whimsical quality gave way to a distinctive form of strangeness that may express isolation, estrangement, reverie, social need--but whose? It's hard to pinpoint the exact intent; his work has been called "surreal," "metaphysical," and "magic realist," among other things, but none quite captures the haunting magic of Lee-Smith's oils.

A work as early as The Scientist, completed in 1949, has this enigmatic quality. A thin figure, of indistinguishable race, stands in a lab coat in full light on a cracked concrete parapet and looks back through dark glasses directly at the viewer. Beyond the parapet walls are two jagged bare trees against a gloomy sky. Extended from the tree branches are streamers, and from a distant flagpole, a flag--dynamic counterpoints to the otherwise static elements. Shadows in the foreground add to the ominous atmosphere.

Lee-Smith means to provoke questions about the roles of science and the scientist, of the observer--questions about race and the human condition. You do not get his spin on these issues, however, even though you experience them from his point of view.

To approach them, Lee-Smith uses a limited but rich, highly personal vocabulary of symbolic images.

"I'm a gut painter," Lee-Smith explains if you try to get him to shed some light on his intent. "I collect pictorial elements that I am endlessly fascinated with combining." Among them are the muted sky (often over calm waters), the cracked parapet (often in the foreground of an expanse of beach), and streamers and flags, usually in grayed pink or green. From the 1950s to the present--right up to the most recent painting in the exhibition, Silent Riddle--he has explored the composition of one or several isolated figures within this setting.

Silent Riddle is an elegant painting, filled with sun and shadow, that centers on a black girl in a flowing pink dress, her face shaded by a pink banded sun hat. Above the girl's head a Roman bust is suspended in (and gagged by) a swaddling drape--a sly allusion to an artist Lee-Smith greatly admires, Giorgio de Chirico, a metaphysical Italian painter.

But despite the allusions and the dreamlike feeling in Lee-Smith's work, his is not ultimately an academic art. "My pervasive idea is a social one," he says. "I see the bare facts of reality--the clashes of social forces in a changing society." An artistic credo he published in 1945 proclaims: "The road art must travel in a given society is charted by the historical necessities of the times. It is determined by the needs of the people at any given historical period." Today he adds, "If we are to solve social problems, we must emphasize the similarity of people of all races, creeds, and colors." That similarity, for him, seems to he in the distancing and darkening he captures, which we all sense is a driving force in contemporary existence.

Lee-Smith's aesthetic and philosophical paths have been the road less taken by contemporary black artists, who tend to be more militant and separatist, but he has pursued it with remarkable inventiveness and conviction. And it has paid off. At 73, he is doing the best painting of his life.

Lee-Smith's exhibition was organized by the Public Library Cultural Center and the New Jersey State Museum (Lee-Smith has lived in New Jersey for most of the past 40 years). It continues at the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, through March 18, as part of Chicago's celebration of black history month, Admission is free. A catalog is available. For information, call the Cultural Center at 346-3278 or 744-8928.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jeri L. Reed.

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