Triple threat 

History, spirituality and social commentary evident in Hammonds House show

Hammonds House Galleries celebrates the works of three venerable African-American artists with Three Legends: Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Samella Lewis, a traveling show organized by the King Arts Complex in Columbus, Ohio.

Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis and the late Jacob Lawrence are highly respected on many levels. Lawrence, recognized for his talent as early as the 1930s, had a long and successful career as a professional artist. Catlett and Lewis are both accomplished artists and educators. Their relationship dates from the 1940s when Lewis was Catlett's student at Hampton Institute in Virginia. Over the years, the three have mentored countless contemporary artists, and each has purposefully employed art as a means to communicate poignant social, personal, political and historical experiences.

Concentrating on prints, the exhibition holds only a fraction of Catlett's sculptural oeuvre. Hopefully, Atlantans saw her retrospective at Spelman College gallery last year. The space was filled with powerful female figures shaped in gleaming onyx, marble, cedar and mahogany. While her sculptures hold an iconic potency, Catlett's prints represent a more personal view of African-American strength and spirituality.

"Sharecropper" is a renowned Catlett lino-cut from 1968. The woman's regal demeanor belies the poverty described by her broad-brimmed field hat and the safety pin that fastens her dark coat. "Madonna" (1982) is one of Catlett's more sculptural black-and-white lithographs. An arch frames the beautifully faceted form of a mother encircling two children with her arm. The image of father and son in her contemporary color lithograph "New Generation" (1992) evokes an aura of economic success.

Jacob Lawrence demonstrates his skilled compositional techniques in prints that draw frequently from his familiar narrative series on important figures and events in African-American history. Serigraphs such as "The Library" (1978) and "The Builder Family" (1985) feature his signature flat, densely colored and tightly cropped imagery. "Forward Together" (1997) depicts Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad in a woodland scene where families fleeing from slavery blend seamlessly with the flowing nature of the forest. The dark figure that strides out of "#16" from Lawrence's "John Brown" series leaves behind his footprints and a few traces of blood in a river of blue-white snow. The artist's stylistic strength is remarkable in "#12" from the same series, where cutthroat cowboys, rocks and horses blend and bounce off each other in a rhythmic composition.

Of the three artists, Samella Lewis shows the greatest range of subject matter and style in her landscapes, portraits and abstractions. Her intention is to depict dimensionality in the black experience. "Field," a 1968 lino-cut printed in black and white, is one of her strongest works. A powerful woman reaches up to the black sky. One hand, a fist, transforms the sun behind her into a great thumbprint. There's a painterly rendering of despair in the mask-like faces of three men in the 1994 serigraph "Masquerade." An innocent "Cleo," her face a halo, holds yellow roses for her portrait in a 1996 color lithograph.

Three Legends spans 50 years of creative energy at the same time it documents the conscious commitment of three individuals to make a public statement about the strength and struggles within their African-American culture. The exhibition describes the masterful roles played by Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Samella Lewis as artists and agents of social change.

Three Legends: Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Samella Lewis continues through Feb. 18 at Hammonds House Galleries, 503 Peeples St. Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 1-5 p.m. 404-752-8730. Edward S. Springs will present a slide lecture titled "Jacob Lawrence: Frederick Douglass and John Brown Series" Jan. 25 at 6:30 p.m. Kevin Sipp presents a slide lecture titled "Black History Lecture: Revisiting Romare Bearden" Feb. 15 at 6:30 p.m.

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