Contributed by Kathryn McKinney
Political art is often a bit of a horse pill, usually we know it’s good for us, but there’s something unpleasant about taking it. Often the earnestness in the work comes off a little too strongly, the literal trumping the artistic and you end up with an interesting PSA. Maybe art just isn’t meant to address the who, what, where and when, that’s journalism, but it would be impossible to remove the twisted snarl of racial and social issues from art because these things also affect people, and people who are artists, personally. Travis Somerville takes race very personally. For the record, he is white. This won’t matter in most of his everyday life, but it matters when we look at his art, because as I said, it’s all about race.
His current show “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” looks at American racial history, and its larger impact through the lens of globalization. Somerville walks his usual fine line pushing through a repertoire of racial tropes and iconoclastic imagery. Some of it works really well, like the assemblage of “The Raft of Methuselah”, a piece heavy with artistic and biblical references, and seems to beg the question: where are we going? Others incorporate a bit of humor, as a “A Rush to Judgment” talks about not only the history of the state of California as a financial pipe dream (i.e. the gold rush, Hollywood), but the current state of affairs as well. Both of his paintings “H.L.” and “Who Built the Pentagon” seem influenced by one of the great artistic voices of race issues, Basquiat, and do justice to the legacy.
Other pieces seem a bit forced, and honestly pointless. Particularly when doing things like painting KKK hoods over photos of a black choir, as in “Choir Robe 1” and “Choir Robe 2”. As a simple visual pun it works, by which the choir members could be klansmen in their long robes with the right accessory, but the set up is too costly for the punchline and does little beside allude to the complexities of racism. That’s a topic that needs no innuendo.
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