Jacob Lawrence was not a painter of horror.
He sometimes painted about horrible subjects — especially the ugly manifestations of American racism — but his work itself does not usually feel like a phantasmagorical nightmare. Which is why, of the 50 works in the expansive Lawrence exhibition currently hanging at Greg Kucera Gallery, “Confrontation at the Bridge,” from 1975, is so arresting.
The scene: a floating-above-the-middle-of-the-river perspective of Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama — where, on “Bloody Sunday” 1965, armed police attacked and viciously beat civil rights demonstrators marching to Montgomery. On one side of the bridge: Black women and men, walking with expressions of anguish, anger and grim determination. On the other side: an amorphous, toxic-looking cloud, like some foul miasma from a cursed place, sprouting bayonets. Beneath it, one sharp-fanged, evil-looking hellhound opens its jaws.
The exhibition’s other scenes of violence (and there aren’t that many of them) have the familiar look of humans fighting humans: the mutiny on the slave ship Amistad, battle scenes from the Haitian Revolution, white abolitionists knife-fighting with white pro-slavery forces. But “Confrontation” feels unsettlingly supernatural: real people facing down evil itself.
It’s a chilling aberration. In the rest of the exhibition by this beloved artist (easily the Northwest’s most famous before Dale Chihuly came along and perfected his brand), even when depicting scenes of struggle and toil, the work itself can feel strangely comforting. Maybe it’s Lawrence’s confident use of bold color and shapes that might look odd, but are totally comfortable with their identities. Maybe it’s the way he sticks to approachable, figurative images that are playful, but never off-puttingly abstract. (Lawrence sometimes described his work as “dynamic cubism.”) Maybe it’s just seeing the earthy, fibrous texture of paper beneath the paint and ink.
Or, more likely, it’s because his subjects seem so actively alive: making, doing, fighting, celebrating. The images from his various series (about abolitionists, or Black workers building things, or the Great Migration of Black Americans from the Jim Crow South to cities north and west) might feel dire at times, with their heroes stuck deep behind enemy lines, but are never despairing. Their ethos isn’t so much “we suffer” as “yes, we suffer, and we fight.” Even amid destruction, they’re blooming.
This makes sense. In an interview, Lawrence — who spent formative years in Harlem and many years as a well-loved teacher at the University of Washington — talked about how, as a child, he heard the stories of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and other figures he’d paint later in life: “The relating of those events, for many of us, was not only very informative but also most exciting. To us, the men and women of these stories were strong, daring and heroic.”
And they look that way. In a sense, Lawrence painted big, beautiful panels for real-life superheroes.
The show is satisfyingly wide-ranging in content and style: paintings and silk-screens, textured pencil studies and delightfully crisp ink and brushwork on paper. There are two of his several series about famous revolutionaries — John Brown (U.S.), Toussaint Louverture (Haiti) — as well as gentler scenes.
In one of my favorites — a modest-sized 1966 painting — four adults grin and coo over a new addition to the family. One woman (the mother?) actually glows as she reaches down toward the baby, who isn’t much bigger than her hand. Titled “Family,” it’s a welcome stroke of tenderness, a quiet interlude among Lawrence’s roiling scenes from the big, wide world.
But not all of the roils are awful. Some are even delightful: a cheering theater audience thrusting flowers at performers; a happy-looking family, perhaps in their Sunday clothes, walking down a busy street; and, of course, Lawrence’s iconic builders. The man loved a hammer and a hand plane. Later in life, he began collecting tools. “I can’t drive a straight nail,” he once said, “but I use [the tools] in my paintings as a painter would a still life.” In one, the 1977 work “Tools,” shelves of implements seem to nestle a man snoozing gently in his workshop. He’s a rare Lawrence figure in repose.
Another work that sings a poignant song, aside from the sweet “Family,” is an image of Douglass sitting at a table, writing on a yellow, newspaper-sized slab of paper. (Perhaps an issue of his anti-slavery paper The North Star?) Around him, the scholar’s stuff: books, a lamp, a houseplant, some furled umbrellas in an umbrella stand, ready for use.
An inkpot-looking thing sits nearby on the table, but Douglass seems to be writing in red. A banner of what looks like blood flows out of his chest, across the page and to the tip of his pen. He looks focused, studious, not at all alarmed.
Is it too sentimental of me to see Douglass pouring his lifeblood into his work — literally writing from the heart?
Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings and Prints, through Feb. 29; 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Ave. S., Seattle; free; 206-624-0770, gregkucera.com