There are only seven paintings in Harold Smith’s exhibit “Can You See Me?” but each is so vibrant, mighty, and disturbing that the show feels as expansive as a major museum installation. Smith labors in the trickiest of arenas: he juggles painting, protest and poetry in every artwork. The result? Each piece turns into a heat-seeking missile that hits the mark it aims for: the mind, eye and heart of the viewer.
Smith is an artist, teacher and writer whose frequent subject is racism. (He is a regular contributor to KC Studio.) One of Smith’s paintings is installed in the atrium, just outside the galleries featuring the current group show “Foresight/Insight: Reflecting on the Museum’s Collection.”
That piece, “The Five, Can You See Me Now?” is an all-black painting, but its blackness is neither a void nor is it empty. There are traces of five different men’s faces scattered on the surface, a specific reference to the Central Park Five, teenage men — four African-Americans and one Hispanic — falsely accused of a horrific assault and rape in New York’s Central Park in 1989. They were later found innocent, after serving time.
One of the five, Dr. Jusef Salaam, is quoted on the painting’s label. Also included is a poem by Glenn North — he was named the first poet laureate of the 18th and Vine Historic District in 2016 and frequently collaborates with Smith and other artists. North writes: “Can’t you see/America still struggles/in her original sin/a system rooted in slavery/with no attempt to amend. . . “
The six paintings in the Nerman’s Kansas Focus Gallery also deal with racism, and each has a commentary by North. All the works are single images of African-American men that can be read as self-portraits of the artist, as well as generic images of men like him.
“Visible Man #2” is another black-on-black portrait, this one of a single face. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” Ralph Ellison wrote in his classic book “The Invisible Man.” Smith’s portrait underscores this point, as the viewer is required, with effort, to discern the image embedded in the canvas. It “embodies how difficult it is for some people to truly see Black men,” North writes. The result is truly mesmerizing, as the painting’s burnished, craggy, reflective surface glows like hot embers, embodying both majesty and rage.
The remaining five works are from Smith’s “Untitled (Men of Color series).” Four paintings consist of the neck, shoulders, hands and face of an African-American man, painted in bold strokes of color. Three are surrounded by a solid field of turquoise (it’s hard to think of any artist other that Wayne Thiebaud who has used this hue to such effect), and another by red. The intensity of the backgrounds propels each image forward.
If there are hands depicted in Smith’s art, they always serve a purpose. In one “Men of Color,” the figure covers his mouth with his hand. In the accompanying label, titled “Not Being Seen or Heard,” North writes: “We create art, make music, excel in athletics and inspire fashion trends that the world adores, but we are not given fair treatment in those very same industries . . . we cover our own mouths in quiet resignation.”
One painting, composed of a series of colorful slashes on a sienna background, is simply a face that is crying. North writes powerfully of this, in “The Portrait Speaks”: “. . .I am the Black man who was kidnapped from Africa. I am the Black man who provided the free labor that made this country an economic superpower. I am the Black man who was emasculated, forced to watch while my women were raped and my children were sold. I am the Black man who was lynched, made to endure decades of racial terror . . . The colors that comprise me don’t blend because I was never offered the opportunity to blend into the country I helped build. When, in the history of America, has my life mattered? Look into my eyes. Is it any wonder that I weep white tears?”
In all of Smith’s works, he portrays eyes in such a striking, direct manner that one thing is made clear: we may not see him, or other Black men, but not for one minute do we doubt that the artist and his brethren are past and present witnesses to all the racial injustice that has transpired over the centuries. Smith’s art, and North’s words, make one hope that there is a reckoning at hand.
“Harold D. Smith, Jr.: Can You See Me?” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through Oct. 27. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org.