Work of Art from the Hunter Museum of American Art: Hughie Lee-Smith’s Confrontation

Introduction

Art is a reflection of reality. An expression of emotions, realities, and concerns, art incorporates different elements to make this expression visible and comprehensible.

The end of WWII was followed by the growing popularity of realism in America: dozens of talented artists created their works, trying to re-evaluate the social anxieties of the postwar order. Hughie Lee-Smith was among those, who felt desperate and isolated in postwar America. Colored with civil rights controversies and torn between numerous economic, cultural and social priorities, America of the 1960-1970s deprived thousands of non-white citizens of their right to equity and acceptance.

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Hughie Lee-Smith’s Confrontation was created in 1970, to express the brokenness of the racial order in the United States. With no bright colors but smooth texture and clear lines, Hughie Lee-Smith’s Confrontation (1970) reflects the main racial tendencies in 1970s America and expresses the feeling of black isolation against the background of white supremacy.

Why Lee-Smith gave the work this particular title is difficult to define. Different people explain the meaning and implications of his work in entirely different ways. On the one hand, Lee-Smith’s picture depicts the act of confrontation between two young ladies and the broken wall of their hopes and beliefs.

On the other hand, it seems that both girls are confronted by inner conflicts which they try to resolve. Most probably, the title reflects a broad confrontation of racial and social ideas in 1970s America, when the Civil Rights Movement was on the rise and the gap between the white majority and minorities was particularly visible.

This confrontation causes the feelings of isolation and alienation, which neither of the two girls can overcome. It is a realization of someone else’s presence in this world. It is a moment when reconciliation is possible but not inevitable. It is a moment when both girls have to decide, whether they are prepared to see each other and make a step forward toward peace.

Confrontation (1970) is not the only Lee-Smith’s work. Realism was the main thread in Hughie Lee-Smith’s creative career. For example, in 1989 Lee-Smith created his Promise – a painting with a young man, a young woman, and a child standing at the top of the brick wall and looking into the sky.

Like with Confrontation (1970), Lee-Smith does not give up his hope for a better future. Even in desperation and hollowness, Smith always leaves some room for improvement. However, as always, the theme of race continues to dominate his works. An African-American, Lee-Smith is extremely persistent in his striving to communicate the message of racism and equity to the public.

Lee-Smith’s Confrontation (1970) was an acute response to the contemporary social realities in America. The Civil Rights Movement had already achieved its purpose: the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and America was in its way to future prosperity, equity, and citizenship. That was the time when “a balancing act between a race consciousness in art and visual assimilation into the white cultural mainstream” was adopted and expressed through realism (Powell).

That was also the time, when legal developments and achievements had to support the American society in its pursuit for equity and inclusiveness. That was the moment when racial consciousness became a serious barrier to equality and non-racism in America: laws could not change the public mentality, and Americans were left alone to deal with the realities of multiracial existence.

Hughie Lee-Smith never said anything about his work. Moreover, it seems that the artist never wanted to discuss his creative career. Critics were silent, too. Yet, Lee-Smith once wrote:

“As an artist, I am at once a participant and a detached observer of the maelstrom of life in contemporary society. […] my art is a unique visual account of […] what I perceive as a surreal world”.

In this sense, Confrontation (1970) is a complex reflection of the multifaceted social reality, in which the artist lives. It is equally enigmatic and comprehensible. The main benefit of the work is in that it generates different explanations and makes the audience think.

Pic.1. Hughie Lee-Smith. Confrontation. (Hunter Museum).

The painting is made by oil on canvas, size 33?36 inches (Hunter Museum). It has the artist’s signature in the lower right corner (Hunter Museum). The painting has been loaned from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and does not belong to the Hunter Museum of American Art (Hunter Museum).

It can be found in the East Wing of the museum, titled The Depression and Beyond (Hunter Museum). The picture lacks bright colors. For this reason, it creates a thinking atmosphere and erases the boundary between the painting and the audience. The transition between the light and shadow is extremely smooth; so is the texture. The lines are clear and accurate. Angles are perfect.

Linear perspective creates an impression that the scene is observed through the window. It also feels like the two girls in the picture are not aware of the audience’s presence. There is a feeling that the painter gives the audience a unique chance to observe the girls, as they are trying to take the best decision. Even with a dozen of viewers looking at the painting, the space in which the two girls are located remains intact. This is again due to the linear perspective, which makes possible to evaluate the entire scene from a distance.

The mood of the work is depressive, but with a tint of hope. Heads bent, bodies apart, the two young girls stand at a distance. Faces hidden and eyes closed, they are in the state of desperate separation from the rest of the world. They are thinking. They are facing a tough choice.

However, a ray of light from behind the scene creates a feeling of hope. Lee-Smith does not say that the problem is irresolvable. The girls can find the way out of the spiritual labyrinth they are currently in. However, they will have to pass a long way to reconciliation with the realities of life.

I believe that the picture fits perfectly well in the realities of multicultural American life. Looking at the painting, I find myself at the beginning of the 1970s, when hope and anticipation of the major social improvements were the main features of public mentality in America. Simultaneously, I also feel isolated from the most important things and changes.

I feel like facing a difficult choice – a choice too painful but essential to my life and future wellbeing. Everyone faced such choice at least once in a lifetime. In this picture I see the beginning of something new, but whether this future is better than the past will depend upon the choices these girls eventually decide to make.

Conclusion

Hughie Lee-Smith’s Confrontation (1970) is a reflection of civil rights anxieties in 1970s America. With smooth texture and no bright colors, the picture adds to the feeling of isolation from the rest of the American society.

The picture was created when the Civil Rights movement had already achieved its culmination and the American society had to adjust its mentality to the new realities of multicultural life.

However, even in desperation the artist leaves some room for hope. The problem is not irresolvable, and the two girls still have a chance to take a step forward towards peace. This picture can be a beginning of something new, but whether this future is better than the past will depend upon the choices these girls eventually decide to make.

Works Cited

Anonymous. “Hughie Lee-Smith.” Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2011. Web. 25 July 2011.

Lee-Smith, Hughie. Confrontation. 1970. Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga.

Powell, Richard. “African American Art.” Traditional Fine Arts Organization, 2005. Web. 25 July 2011.

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