Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Colossal Impact of Norman Lewis

All good things must come to end.
With the 115th Annual Student Exhibition underway and students all installed now, one cannot help remember previous huge event that ended four weeks ago. Procession, the great Norman Lewis retrospective, began last November. Paintings, drawings, and lithographs elevated spaces in the Fisher Brooks (Hamilton) and Works on Paper (Historic Landmark Building) galleries. On its final bow, phenomenal art pieces closed with a long, flourishing stream of awestruck viewership, now touring onward in Texas and Chicago.
The press had been phenomenal.
New York Times featured three articles on including Black Artists and the March into the Museum and Four Rewarding Shows in Philadelphia. CBS Sunday News aired a segment with curator Ruth Fine.
Norman Lewis was not a man listed in art history textbooks. He wasn't mentioned one lick.
PAFA gave him a much lauded due.

Untitled Self Portrait, 1940s.
This momentous occasion meant the world to a PAFA student-- an African American, abstract loving PAFA student that is. Oh how remarkable the experience of coming down in between classes, spending time in Norman Lewis, astounded by intimate evidences of his existence-- private books, published articles, and letters, some containing PAFA affiliation.
Procession was divided into six sections: In the City: Life/Looking at Art, Ritual, Visual Sound, Rhythm of Nature, Civil Rights, and Summation. Different pastel hued walls indicated their division, in turn showcasing Lewis's breadth of experimentation going beyond traditional practice.

Top: Boule Mask, pastel on sandpaper, 1935. Ivory Coast Boule Mask, pastel on paper, 1935.
Bottom: Don Mask, pastel on sandpaper, 1935. Bobin (bobbin) Loom, Boule, pastel on paper, 1935.
Four pastel drawings showcase depth of African mask influence. Elongated faces, distinctive narrow versus thick features caught in a glint of light. Beautiful body of work cements the African diaspora foundation, the quenching desires to discover uniqueness about the continent and its inspiring, albeit distinctive art aesthetic.

Girl with Yellow Hat, oil on burlap, 1936.
Figurative paintings unveil early interest that one couldn't dismiss as passing fancy. Elements remain evident in later nonrepresentational abstraction.
Two Women Reading discusses literacy. Reading is one of the most powerful tools one can have-- it's elemental and can give anyone the potential to rise above. Language opens doors. In Lewis's rather evocative painting, the brown skinned woman's body is close, her head lowered, focused into the book whereas the red suited lady points at a word, likely instructing pronunciation.

Two Women Reading, oil on canvas, 1940.
Some of Lewis's personal objects-- flyers and letters from renowned Chelsea galleries.
Title Unknown (Jazz Club), oil and sand on canvas, 1945.
Roller Coaster, opaque watercolor, ink, and crayon on board, 1946.
Title Unknown, oil on canvas, 1947.
Five Phases, oil on canvas, 1949.
Too Much Aspiration, opaque watercolor, ink, and graphite on paper, 1947.
Cantata, oil on canvas, 1948 (Dayton Art Institute museum purchase).
Unknown Title, oil and metallic on canvas, 1953.
Winter Branches #5, ink on paper, 1954.
close up one.
close up two.
Masquerade, oil on canvas, 1967.
Carnivale II, oil on canvas, 1962.
Personal objects. Throughout the exhibit, books, brochures, sketchbooks, letters, and postcards were protected in display cases.
Lewis discussing the plight of being an abstract artist at a time where black artists weren't seen as such.
The prominent Civil Rights era impacted much of Lewis's oeuvre.
Turbulent, harsh times caused rift in Lewis's artistic career, the racial barriers not allowing him a true descent into deserved praise and acclaim. Intrigued gallery patrons would be thrilled by the paintings, but when discovering that a black artist's paintbrush defined mystic shapes and sophisticated design, they often turned away disgusted, repulsed, seemingly hoodwinked by their own individual tastes. This was heartbreaking for Lewis to witness. Nonetheless, he continued painting, a triumph in the world threatening to discourage and disillusion him.

Title Unknown (March on Washington), oil on fiberboard, 1965.
Alabama, oil on canvas, 1960.
Untitled (Ku Klux Klan), oil on canvas, 1960.
The Banjo Lesson, oil on canvas, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893.
The strong, powerfully symbolic Untitled (Ku Klux Klan) has a slight uncanny resemblance to Henry Ossawa Tanner's "The Banjo Lesson." Seventy-years separates their respective completions. Yet these compositions have subtle undertones of African American history implanted in their visual renderings that opens room for interpretative dialogue. With Tanner, lies an interest in the banjo, an instrument brought on slave boats, carrying its iconographic homage through the worst times ever conceptualized. In the midst of humble surroundings, the elder teaches the younger an important specificity. The much later painting by Lewis, has similar subdued color palette, warm earth tones abstractly manipulating figurative elements. The Ku Klux Klan, formulated after the concession of Civil War and American slavery's eventual abolishment, made up primarily of hate filled white supremacists who could never see African Americans as equal, as human. To this day, their violent rampages still wage onward and no true end in sight. This painting has a haunting missive. Softened edges dissolve into absent whiteness, begging closer inspection. Repetitive shapes bring forth a sense of unease and terror, a foggy memory longing to be forgotten.

Seachange, oil on canvas, 1975.
Norman Lewis was an invigorating, well received treat for PAFA, its students, and the community. He brought forth necessary education, a resourceful impact rising well above everyone's expectation of true artistic genius. Memorable exhibit stays inside mind, encouraging and significant, in allegorical line formations and cataclysmic bright colors and a prose like language, and solemnly requests an honored allegiance.
And I, the viewer, an up-and-coming artist, art lover, and writer, comply to Lewis and the others before and after him.

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