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Art Review: Hughie Lee-Smith September 29–November 5, 2022

Artist Hughie Lee-Smith, on display from September 29–November 5 at Karma, Los Angeles located at 7351 Santa Monica Blvd. (photo from Karma Gallery)


Early last week I found myself in West Hollywood with an hour to spare between appointments. I recalled a friend recently telling me that I MUST go to the new Karma Gallery space on Santa Monica Blvd. And so I did.

I walked into Karma Gallery unaccompanied by any knowledge of what I might see or who the artist was. Which is a wonderful way to enter a space. Neutral and open. I carry no pedigree in art history or education, but over the years have walked through the doors of many a gallery and museum and even if I “like” or “don’t like” or “can’t understand” the work, I always leave inspired by what an artist can fashion out of thin air. To create a work where there is only an empty space is a feat unto itself. And to create works that seem to be living, breathing things is a no less than a small miracle.

Walking into the smaller, more intimate viewing room at Karma and encountering Hughie Lee Smith’s work for the very first time was like walking through the wardrobe in a CS Lewis novel and finding myself in another world entirely. A world that was both familiar and startling new. Lee-Smith paints in a manner that combines classical romantic landscape – storm clouds approaching, placid lake surfaces, and long, late afternoon shadows, with contemporary figures placed in areas that feel remote or even abandoned. Scattered among these landscapes are trailing ribbons, playground balls and balloons that have come to rest in the rubble of a neglected neighborhood or a crumbling seaside resort. These relics make one wonder… “Did I just miss the parade, or have these symbols of life and joy and celebration merely come to rest here after drifting over from another time or era?”

The people that Lee-Smith places in these landscapes are sometimes moving and sometimes rooted, but there is always motion in the frame. Whether a strand of hair is being lifted by the wind, or someone is strolling casually towards the viewer from a sandy beach, there is a languid sense of passing time and a shifting of history may be what he is intimating. Many of the works in this show were painted in the 1940s and ’50s and America at the time was certainly highly segregated – Lee-Smith paints with a quiet strength that implies all persons are allowed to stand where he puts them.

“Outing” c. 1970, Oil on Canvas (photo from Megan Derry)


A tall, slender and casually dressed black man stands on the edge of a dock that juts into a gray blue lake, and on the dock with him are two white women, both in bathing suits. One woman throws a stone into the lake while the other is poised to dive to the side of the dock ….

The man stands with hands on hips, looking directly at the viewer and dares us to question… “why is he there? what is his relationship to these two women? why can we see his face but not theirs? why is he fully dressed and they are not?” The provocation is clear but the answers to these questions are up to the viewer to decipher.


“Untitled” (Man in Red Shirt at the Shore) circa 1960s oil on linen. (photo by Megan Derry)


In other paintings we feel a sense of solitude. A lone figure is presented in juxtaposition with a solitary and seemingly retired factory building. Two beings. One living and breathing, the other representing a way of life that has come to pass.

Again, there is a sense of time marching slowly but deliberately on, and our way of life changing along with this march of time. No matter that this factory is now defunct and the town it supported has probably been lain to waste, the person is still here and we wonder what the next passage of time will bring.


“Untitled” 1952-1953, oil on masonite (photo from Megan Derry)


Hughie Lee-Smith’s paintings in this exhibition also include intimate landscapes and heartrending portraits, all of which moved me to not only feel the warm wind and smell the salt air but wish I could step even further into his world and experience what is painted on the canvas.


“Untitled”, 1954, oil on masonite (photo by Megan Derry)


Hughie Lee-Smith September 29–November 5, 2022
Karma, Los Angeles 7351 Santa Monica Blvd,  Los Angeles, CA 90046


Buzz Contributor Megan Derry is a photographer and art enthusiast. 


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