Tacoma artist Lacey Reuter was only 17 years old when she created the "Harlem Renaissance" paintings now on display at American Art Company, said gallery director Tammy Radford. It's an impressive body of work for anybody, especially a 17-year-old. There are five large paintings, each measuring 5-foot, 5-inches by 5-foot, and one mural-size painting at 6-by-11 feet that dominates one wall of the gallery.
On the downside, as representative of the Harlem Renaissance, a major force in America's cultural history, they are little more than a kind of scrapbook with pictures of a lot of the famous artists and writers and musicians who lived and worked in Harlem at the time, and the faces are not even recognizable but are identified by name, which seems childish to this reviewer.
On the upside, these are vibrant, energetic and engaging paintings. Reuter's drawing style is unhesitating. She combines flat areas and modeled areas and line in ways that provide an intriguing balance of variety and unity. They are colorful and exciting, a visual representation of the jazz music that was the music of the time and place - much like what Mondrian did in a more subdued and abstract manner with his "Broadway Boogie Woogie."
Compositionally, they dance right up to the edge of chaos. Faces and objects easily get lost in the clutter. The only unifying elements are the color schemes (a predominance of blues in the smaller works and of tan in the large painting), meandering lines that move throughout in most of the paintings, and in the smaller works a circular arrangement of faces and other images.
The Harlem Renaissance was an explosion of music, literature and visual art centered in Harlem, New York City, in the years between the world wars. Each of Reuter's paintings celebrates one aspect of the Renaissance: art, music, writing and theater; and the large, mural-sized painting combines them all.
The "Harlem Art" depicts artists Sargent Johnson, Palmer Hayden, William H. Johnson and others with their names handwritten by their pictures and quotes from some of them such as from Hayden: "I decided to paint to support my love of art rather than have my art support me."
"Harlem Music" celebrates Fletcher Henderson, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and others; "Harlem Theater" pictures Ethel Waters, Bojangles Robinson and Eubie Blake; "Harlem Writers" memorializes Booker T. Washington, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston. It also pictures book spines with titles and quotes from works by some of the writers.
The largest painting and by far the most impressive combines all the elements of the others. Dark brown and black figures flow across the bottom half of the canvas in a circular swoop while lighter, multi-colored concentric circles in the background solidify what would otherwise be chaos. The thin paint application and many transparencies are enjoyable to contemplate because of their subtlety and complexity, as are a series of almost invisible light tan faces that meld into the background. This is a sophisticated painting.
Finding all the figures and words can be entertaining, but it is the exuberance of these paintings that make them worth seeing.
"Harlem Renaissance," 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, through Feb. 28, American Art Company, 1126 Broadway Plaza, Tacoma, 253.272.4327, americanartco.com