Walking into Arvie Smith’s latest exhibition, you must be okay with being uncomfortable, as immediately upon entry, visitors encounter Black subhumans with ash skin, bug eyes, and swollen red lips that haunt them from canvas to canvas. This disturbing imagery constantly shifts in form throughout the exhibit like apparitions, but most people familiar with American entertainment history know the real-life ramifications these cartoons had on Black Americans. Eighty-four-year-old painter Arvie Smith uses his work to remind us of these ramifications and maintains that not only can they still be felt in the present, but that they must be confronted rather than left in the past.
Marking the Portland-based artist’s first solo exhibition at Monique Meloche Gallery, “Call and Response” features nine oil paintings that present an overwhelming visual history of the discrimination and mockery Black Americans have experienced since the days of slavery. Swarming every corner of Smith’s works are minstrel-era imagery and Jim Crow propaganda previously used to strip African Americans of their humanity. Underlying every painting are warm undertones of red and orange, but to define this collection of works as “warm” is not strong enough. These undertones give Smith’s interpretations of Sambo, Aunt Jemima, pickaninnies and other racist figures a scorching quality. The longer I looked at Smith’s works, the more I felt the imprints of these caricatures searing themselves into my mind’s eye.