Processional (1965) by Norman Lewis is just one of the many engaging artworks in the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern, London. While being one amongst the many, Processional stands out as uniquely striking in its simplicity. However this simplicity of form does not translate into an easy reading of the painting itself and in spite of being an abstract piece the feeling the image gives is that there is something to be read into its abstraction.
Seeing the story to be read out of or into Processional depends on where you are standing as you contemplate the image. Facing the painting head on and you might not get the message of the painting, unless you have a conscious understanding of perspective; hence pun intended you might not get a sense of its perspective. Writers on visual culture like to tell us that perspective is a cornerstone of the western way of seeing and hence westerners automatically see perspective.1 It is recognising this Western way of seeing that would lead you to understanding the message that Lewis is aiming to convey.
In obeying the visual prescription of perspective Lewis is communicating that he understands and is a signed up member to the values of the civilisation that he is painting within. His communication in this instance was with the critics contemporary to the period of the original display of Processional. It is when you apply the rule of perspective that you also gain a sense of the aforementioned values that Lewis is presenting. In Processional the questions raised on values are manifold.
There is a dichotomy to the values that Lewis addresses in Processional, hence the strong contrast of black and white he employed in the painting is very telling. Lewis in this instance takes full advantage of the remit to produce pieces in monochrome black and white that was given to Spiral; the artist group Lewis was a part of.2 Processional along with the monochrome works of other Spiral artists were shown in a group exhibition in 1965.3 Lewis’ black and white Processional is not so black and white; the dichotomies on display are not so cut and dried. For example is this a painting of a procession of the KKK in the dark of the night or is this an abstraction of the proverbial light at the end of the civil rights tunnel? Furthermore, a plausible assumption is that this an abstraction of a procession of a congregation of Negro spiritualists, however this begs the question of what is the significance of the bold black borders? Lewis’s abstraction is purposefully minimalist yet effective in its complexities.
1. David Bate, The Key Concepts of Photography (Second Edition) (London; Oxford; New York: Bloomsbury, 2016)
2. Tate Modern, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/sound-of-a-nation
3. Tate Modern, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/sound-of-a-nation