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More than five decades after writer and social critic James Baldwin famously expressed what it feels like to not be as human in the eyes of white society in a PBS interview, a movement formed in response to the ongoing violence and systematic racism still plaguing African American communities. Its very declaration, Black Lives Matter, both panicked and revealed those offended by it. For so many, nothing other than the coding of language had changed, and demanding to be seen as human is basic survival.

Now, in times as delicate as glass, with chaos and fear contorting (even once comfortable) Americans, artist Lance Smith's exhibit Moral Monsters, at Las Vegas City Hall, comes into view quietly depicting humanity within an arena of fear. 

It's jarring. Loaded with metaphor and symbolism, Moral Monsters is an intimate series of works in charcoal and oil paint depicting animals of prey at close range — teeth-baring, aggressive, about to strike. In all but three of the works, a transparent red gel is placed over the image, requiring even closer examination. Entrenched in the emotional intensity of red, viewers are pulled into the work, face to face with the animal lunging out at them. The three works without the red filter depict, up close, the power, threat, and merciless clench of shark’s teeth.

The artist's use of color and imagery generates a sense of fear and heightened emotion. By disarming viewers through the use of animals, Smith charges past the chatter and divisiveness, distilling everything but the experience of fear. Is it terrified or terrifying, particularly when one begets the other? What is the difference when one begets the other?

“I’m terrified at the moral apathy — the death of the heart which is happening in my country,” Baldwin had said during the 1963 program, The Negro and the American Promise. “These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say, and this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters.”

The monsters are clearly defined in Baldwin's words. But Smith, in works that explore moral apathy, race, and conflict, takes viewers into the experience of humanity as monster and leaves us there for reflection.

 

Moral Monsters by Lance Smith Mon-Thu, 7:30a-5:30p, through March 27, Las Vegas City Hall Chamber Gallery, second floor, 702-229-2787

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Writer James Baldwin at home in Saint Paul de Vence, South of France, in 1985.
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