Who tells the story of America’s history is often determined by those in power, and they have notoriously left women and minorities behind. The accomplishments of White men are outsized, but the swell against the conventional tide is growing stronger and more inclusive.
Contemporary artists Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall and Mickalene Thomas are redefining the mainstream narrative and representation in their large-scale historical works on display at Seattle Art Museum (SAM) in the exhibition “Figuring History.” According to SAM, the roots of history paintings began during the Renaissance. The grandiose works were displayed in ceremonial venues and celebrated the ruling class. Colescott, Marshall and Thomas present their work from the Black perspective and each represents different generations.
The three award-winning artists are intertwined by more than just the shared genre in which they all work. They’ve also had an impact on one another’s practice. During an artist talk Marshall recounted seeing Colescott’s “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” painting on the cover of the March 1984 issue of Artforum magazine, a well-regarded publication. Colescott replaced the country’s first president with Carver, a noted botanist and inventor with the Tuskegee Institute. He’s most known for coming up with the method of planting peanuts and soybeans to lessen the burden on soil that had mostly been used for planting cotton. Carver is surrounded by eight Black people who represent racist stereotypes, including a mammy. Colescott’s work addresses White culture exalting one respectable figure while also using general and degrading representations for the rest of the Black population.
Marshall referred to Colescott’s cover as a paradigm shift because, at the time, Black art wasn’t so prominently featured before in a publication with such high visibility and respect. It also signaled to Marshall an Artforum cover was possible. Years later his work appeared on one of its covers.
Just as Colescott laid a path for Marshall, Thomas spoke fondly of the time Marshall came to a solo gallery show of hers in Chicago. She described it as a great honor and said “that gave me the go-ahead to continue on.” It was important validation from someone she respects. Marshall speaks highly of her work: “If you look at the scale and the scope of the work, it’s as complex, it’s as rich as anything you could ever hope to see.”
Beyond their connections the grouping of these artists together is a natural fit. Not only in their respective styles but also in their clear point of view. Their works blend together effortlessly and naturally transition from Colescott’s vividly colored figures highlighting people such as arctic explorer Matthew Henson to Marshall’s unapologetically Black subjects to Thomas’ rhinestone-adorned collage-style works of women.
The late Colescott was born in Oakland, California, to parents who traveled west from Louisiana as part of The Great Migration. He earned a MA from University of California, Berkeley, in 1952. He studied abroad and those experiences inspired his art. Colescott used satire and irony on his commentary of race relations.
Marshall’s “School of Beauty, School of Culture” takes the viewer to a bustling hair salon. Beauticians place the final touches on their clients’ hairstyles while other women mill about. A poster above one of the mirrors is a signed copy of the cover art for the CD “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” In the foreground a woman strikes a pose for a photographer. A floating bust of a blonde Disney princess has caught the attention of two small children. The anamorphic representation is a nod to the similarly placed skull in “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger.
“The beauty shop is the place where women go to make and re-make themselves into the image they want to project,” Marshall said. “And yet, even in this place that reinforces aspects of beauty reflecting Black women’s particularities, they are haunted by the specter of the blond ideal.”
Marshall’s five “Souvenir” paintings are centered on the theme of commemoration, souvenir and loss. The homes of friends and family are depicted with banners in each, memorializing fallen civil rights icons, musicians and authors.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Marshall grew up in the Watts district of Los Angeles. He became interested in art after a field trip to a museum in grade school. Later, while enrolled in a summer drawing class at Otis College of Art and Design, he met artist Charles White. In that moment he decided to enroll there after high school. He earned a BFA there and tried out numerous art styles including Japanese brush paint while honing his artistic voice. He’s achieved great success and approaches creating art as a discipline. One identifying blueprint of his work is his use of intense dark paint for the skin tone of his subjects. Marshall described the method as an inescapable fundamental truth.
“On one level the idea is that it establishes an absolute presence of Blackness within the genre painted,” he said. “That’s what those works do, and whatever else is happening around those figures, whatever kind of narrative they may be participating in, the one thing that is always true is that they are Black.”
In the back of the gallery, visitors can view Thomas’ work while sitting on her personal furnishings. The effect is a communal space with a feeling of relaxing in a living room. In essence, visitors are in her studio where her work begins with photography. The centerpiece of the room is “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: les trois femmes noires.” It’s a riff of Edouard Manet’s 1863 work “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.” Instead of two seated men and a nude woman, Thomas shows three Black women sitting together against a background resembling a broken mirror of patterns and rhinestones that glint in the light.
“These three women look as if we’re disturbing their conversation, and they’re giving us a once over,” said Curator Catharina Manchanda. “They’re fully self-empowered, happy to be who they are and where they are and the dynamics are absolutely striking here.”
Thomas pursued art after seeing an exhibition of Carrie Mae Weems’ work at Portland Art Museum in the mid-1990s. She immersed herself in the craft, spending countless hours looking at art books at Powell’s.
“I remember during that time pulling out a book on William H. Johnson,” Thomas said. “I didn’t have any idea who he was but there was something about his sensibility and his art that resonated.”
She earned a BFA from Pratt Institute and an MFA from Yale University. Her signature style includes patterns because she likes the way they look on Black skin. Thomas said her work is political in nature because she often shows Black women in reclining positions.
Colescott, Marshall and Thomas have had and will continue to have a ripple effect of motivation on others because they’ve reached the halls of revered work. Communities of color know intimately the effect representation can have on one’s life. If you’re not familiar with just how powerful positive imagery can be, think of newly crowned Academy Award winner Jordan Peele. He won Hollywood’s highest honor for writing the original screenplay for “Get Out.” He said Whoopi Goldberg’s 1991 Oscar win inspired him to seek out a career in the entertainment industry. The next day, a photo of 2-year-old Parker Curry standing awestruck in front of Michelle Obama’s newly unveiled portrait in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery caught the attention of millions. The adorable toddler was mesmerized by Amy Sherald’s depiction and it spurred “I’m not crying, you’re crying” sentiments in those who saw the photo. Parker believes the former first lady is a queen. It’s moments like these that are invaluable in a society that doesn’t revere Black bodies, voices and contributions.
WHAT: “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas”
WHEN: Runs until May 13
WHERE: Seattle Art Museum (SAM), 1300 First Ave.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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