Hughie Lee-Smith: Picturing Alienation

Hughie Lee-Smith, Two Boys, 1968. Oil on canvas, 18 x 24 in.
It's always a joy to encounter an artist whose work reaches across time, space and circumstance to strike a resonant chord. My introduction to the art of Hughie Lee-Smith was at the Detroit Institute of Arts, in their Center for African American Art. Lee-Smith was born in Florida in 1915 and lived in Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, New York City, where he taught at the Art Students League, a prestigious gig indeed. He won awards and commissions and is represented in major American collections including the MET.

Hughie Lee-Smith, Confrontation, c. 1970. Oil on canvas, 83.8 x 91.4 cm. Smithsonian Museum of American Art
His enigmatic paintings, featuring isolated figures in eerily deserted surroundings, may express Lee-Smith's experience of being black in America. But the air of ambiguity that pervades these striking works speaks to anyone who is alienated, whether by chance or choice.

Hughie Lee-Smith, Desert Forms, 1957. Oil on masonite, 18 x 24 in.
In addition to solitary people, stray balloons and streamers often blow through, incongruous in these desolate spaces. Once accoutrements to happy times, they are reduced to detritus. The party is over. Now what?

Hughie Lee-Smith, Balloon Transitoire, 1985

 Lee-Smith's work is sometimes compared to American realist Edward Hopper in its focus on alienation, and to Italian proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico  for the artist's creation of uncanny spaces. But somehow Lee-Smith feels closer to the ground. That's his appeal. We can step into the shoes of the lonely souls who populate his existential world.

Hughie Lee-Smith, Boy with a Tire, 1952. Oil on panel, 23 3/4 x 32 1/2 in.  Detroit Institute of Arts