`Amazing' collection of lithographs

ART

Art depicts violence against blacks

February 01, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

A heavy tropical fruit, ponderous and overripe, sways gently beneath the twisting branch of a tree. Flowers on slender stalks burst forth in profusion from shapely vases with narrow necks and fat, bulbous bowls. And a dead fish with a hook in its mouth dangles limply from an invisible line.

These and other seemingly innocuous images of fruit, fish and flowers are recurring metaphors in the extraordinary art of Joseph Norman, whose complex, elusive works on paper are on view in Amazing Grace: The Lithographs of Joseph Norman, a beautiful but harrowing exhibition at the James E. Lewis Museum of Morgan State University.

For more than two decades, Norman has created technically stunning, emotionally wrenching portfolios of prints based on a few symbolic images that all allude to a single terrifying theme: the decades of mob violence in the South during the first half of the 20th century when thousands of black men were lynched by white vigilantes.

Norman's lithographs never directly portray the broken bodies of the victims, nor the jeering crowds enjoying the sight of burned and mutilated flesh.

Instead, the fruit, fish and flowers in these brooding, black-and-white images are oblique but potent references to the "Strange Fruit" of which jazz vocalist Billie Holiday once sang so poignantly:

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves

Blood on the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Strange Fruit is also the title of a 1999 series of prints by Norman based on the image of a fish hooked on a line.

For Norman, the fish is a symbolic device rich in associations: It was, for example, a symbol of Jesus Christ for the early Christians and thus a marker for the religious themes of sacrifice and redemption.

Norman employs a similar strategy in two other print series produced in the late 1990s, Kafka and Berlin Autumn #2. In both, the ugly reality of lynching is masked behind apparently innocent still-life images.

Kafka consists of 27 images of fish that present only the creatures' scaly heads. The images are difficult to read - densely drawn, crabbed close-ups that one writer has called "exquisite monstrosities."

The work's title refers to writer Franz Kafka's famous short story "The Metamorphosis," in which a young man awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant bug.

Norman uses the tale of Gregor Samsa's cruel dehumanization as a metaphor for the death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was tortured, lynched and mutilated by white racists in Mississippi in 1955. The horrifying crime was publicized nationally, and reaction to it helped spur the civil rights movement.

Likewise, in Berlin Autumn, Norman presents a series of powerfully rendered images of tree trunks that seem to sprout upward in fantastic, convoluted patterns. Here, the apparent subject - landscape, botanical illustration - again stands in for a tragic racial history. This is powerfully imagined, skillfully executed work about a largely unspoken legacy that remains potent just beneath the surface of contemporary life.

Joseph Norman

Where: James E. Lewis Museum at the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, Morgan State University, 2201 Argonne Drive

Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., through Feb. 27; closed Monday

Admission: Free

Call: 443-885-3030

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