“The Migration Series”
Paintings by Jacob Lawrence from the Phillips Collection
Through May 16 at Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Photographs by Harold Lowe
Through Feb. 28
Courtyard Gallery, Main Public Library
Among the many local events celebrating Black History Month are two important art shows that deal with the theme of the black movement in both literal and metaphorical terms. In a show at the Frist Center, on loan from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., painter Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” depicts the mass exodus of blacks from rural South to urban North in the early 1900s, while at the Main Public Library, Harold Lowe’s photographs document the civil rights movement in Nashville from 1960 through 1965. Although the media differ, both in terms of their visual language and their history, each artist uses similar tactics for exemplifying the larger social issues related to these specific events.
Taking him a year to complete, Jacob Lawrence’s 1940 “Migration Series” consists of 60 individual panels that, in 1942, were divided between the Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art. Although not in their original sequential order, the 30-odd numbered paintings at the Frist still maintain a cohesive progression as they depict the million-strong black populace leaving their Southern residences and the injustices they endured. Lawrence’s work is noted for its economy of color and geometric patterning. For example, in the 15th panel, captioned “There were lynchings,” he repeats the hanging branch pattern in the clouds as a foreshadowing of more of the same to come. His application of solemn tones helps portray the oppression his subjects endured; the people are depicted as abstract human forms, thus creating universal symbols for the “mass” that lack any sort of individual distinction and blurring the pictorial moment into a feeling of a long, continuous progression.
Harold Lowe’s career changed instantly when he used his experience as a commercial photographer to capture an intriguing moment during the civil rights demonstrations in Nashville, when a young man threw a bottle out of a second-story window onto a crowd of agitators below. That photo earned him a spot with The Tennessean as a photojournalist covering the events that would occur over the next few years. Lowe has since donated 60 of his photographic prints to the Nashville Public Library, where they can be seen in the main branch’s second-floor Courtyard Gallery. (The rights to those images still belong to The Tennessean.)
Originally, the key to photojournalism relied on the anonymity of the photographer, or her ability to be the silent observer among the dynamics taking place in front of the lens. Like Lawrence, Lowe is the tacit recorder for the cause, using visual devices to amplify the emotions, but not necessarily taking a clear side. For instance, in his print captioned “B & W Cafeteria, 5th Ave., Nashville, Tennessee, 1963,” the viewer has a bird’s-eye position looking down onto two groups of divided people. The black marchers are on the left facing the white agitators, who stand on the right. But the view from the photographer is exactly in the neutral middle ground between the two.
Likewise, Lawrence documents the segregation of the races in panel 19 of his series, where we see a white woman drinking at a water fountain at the top of the picture and a black woman and girl drinking from a fountain in the lower half. Although he uses the visual plane to symbolize the hierarchy of race, the view is from a distance; all the characters are in two-dimensional equality, with no sense of judgment coming from the artist.
Both Lawrence and Lowe use captions to give the images context. However, these strict, simplified descriptionssuch as “There were lynchings” or “Girl trying to get in the Tic Toc on 7th Avenue and Church”give a sense that the authors are emotionally unengaged from the horrific events revealed in these pieces. They have established themselves as visual reporters, rather than implementing their convictions to make more personalized statements about the unjust subject matter.
Lawrence created his panels using the same size, preparation and medium to keep all the depictions similar and cohesive. Lowe’s photographic work is analogous in its consistent size and print quality. By creating a generic format, each artist allows the epic narrative to maintain its continuity while making it easy for the viewer to move through a large number of differing images. In Lawrence’s case, this format also reinforces the repetitive aspect of passing on the story through oral historywhich he cited as the original inspiration for “The Migration Series.”
Although the journalistic photo is distinctly designed to convey a heightened, captured moment, Lowe’s exhibit at the library stretches time to feel more like a visual journey through specific situations that collectively describe the narrative of the “movement,” rather than the mere happenstance of being in the right place at the right time. The audience buys into the idea that there is something larger at stake here, and not simply sensationalism or entertainment. Instead of using one image to make a quick summation of a complex story, he employs multiple photos to reiterate one theme: the abiding struggle of blacks to gain equality in a country wrought with racism.
Compositionally, both men use obscure perspective to create a sense of drama. Lowe’s is created through the use of a wide-angle lens on close-up subjects, and Lawrence’s derives from his exercise of abstraction and cubism. The tall, skewed public buildings in both bodies of work remark that the subject matter is part of a larger social issue, taking place in public or communal spaces. Lowe photographed the marches on the Capitol here in Nashville, while Lawrence painted churches and public bus stations, symbolizing the geographical, moral and political changes occurring among the people.
Jacob Lawrence’s work has been described as expressionism with social realism, and his artistic capabilities have been ranked among the likes of Picasso and Matisse. Yet the art community has often shortchanged him by categorizing him under such genres as “Negro art” and “folk art.” As “The Migration Series” makes plain, the artist made conscious aesthetic choices to create a symbolic, universal environment in which to speak about the seriousness of social injustice. His sophistication lies in his ability to take the complex forms of expressionism and cubism one step further, combining them with his insight to render and reflect the human condition. Likewise, Harold Lowe’s work is poignant in its indictment of a specific community’s participation in racial injustices.
Both artists bring to the forefront the image of the “mass” and, more importantly, the “black mass”a powerful image that evinces feelings of perseverance or paranoia in the social subconscious. Because they both offer compelling descriptions with no authoritarian tones, Lawrence’s and Lowe’s art sets up the viewer as juror to decide whether he or she sees these acts as social or moral crimes. These bodies of work present real places, times and situations, and ask us to decide where we stand on these issues of the past. In their plainspoken presentation of simple facts, they prompt us to ask whether these injustices continue to exist in the present, and whether complacency has become the new tool for dealing with the omnipresence of racial repression.
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