A solo presentation of work by San Francisco based artist Travis Somerville
Travis Somerville (American, born 1963) has garnered critical attention in numerous publications including The Washington Post, Art in America, FlashArt and The Los Angeles Times.
His work is included in numerous Museum collections, including SF MoMA; the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, San Diego, CA; the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL; the 21c Museum in Louisville, KY; the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, CA; the San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA; and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The work of Travis Somerville functions as a craft of anti-nostalgia and critical memory, and the artist’s work presented at Volta NY showcases Somerville’s sharp and creative insistence on how images and material objects are never merely inanimate relics of a past far removed from our presents or our futures. Somerville compels us to reconsider and repudiate the standard measure of America’s history of white supremacy and racism as a progressive narrative that has seemingly ended on an utopian note of post-race. The work shown at Volta NY demonstrates a scripting of American history that forgoes this progressive wish fulfillment, a rhetoric of non-culpable hope. Instead, Somerville’s work intermingles visual and verbal references to the semiotics of the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Age of Obama.
As Somerville himself points out that his work complicates the sense of a collective memory about how race has shaped the political, historical, cultural, and social contours of America: “As I attempt to navigate the terrain between autobiography, history, and art, all sorts of collisions take place. It is these interesting moments and the inconsistencies that inform them that I try to capture in my work.” Through the restaging of old advertisements and newspapers, vintage money bags and cotton sacks, and the poignant juxtaposition of his drawing and painting against found photos, Somerville brilliantly entices the viewer to marvel over the aesthetic power of American culture’s everyday brutality and myopia.
Travis Somerville Historical Blindness
2014, oil on vintage cotton picking bag, safety pin, cotton glove
68 by 25 in. (ca. 173 by 63 cm)
Travis Somerville Freedom Mugs
2015, graphite on vintage money bags, three sections
ca. 122 by 26 cm per section (ca. 48 by 10 in. per section)
installed ca. 121 by 91 cm (ca. 48 by 36 in.)
The portraits on Freedom Mugs are based on the mugshots of Freedom Riders arrested 1961 in Jackson, Mississippi.
Travis Somerville Well Division
2009, acrylic on vintage porcelain drinking fountains and panels, auto paint on
metal drinking fountain, copper pipes, running water
ca. 80 by 318 by 14 in. (ca. 203 by 808 by 36 cm)
collection 21c Museum, Louisville, KY
Inspired by a photograph showing a refrigerated drinking fountain designated for WHITES sharing the same plumbing with a porcelain fountain for COLORED, Somerville has created his own set of water fountains. Over each fountain is a label and inside each sink is a stereotypical image associated with that group. Somerville added the category of MUSLIM, which is not an ethnicity but a religious designation in this artwork, to address the complexity of racial identity, white privilege and guilt, shifting power structures, as well as the rise of Islamophobia.
installation image from Travis Somerville's exhibition "Dedicated to the proposition..."
October 1 - December 12, 2009, Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design
photograph by Chris Warner
Travis Somerville School Spirit
2014, oil, school patch, on vintage money bags, mounted on unstretched canvas, thread, metal gas cans
ca. 86 by 58 in. (ca. 218 by 142 cm)
Travis Somerville Crowd Source
2015, graphite on paper, eleven individually framed elements
dims variable, as installed ca. 80 by 126 in. (ca. 203 by 320 cm)
collection 21c Museum, Louisville, KY
This work is based on the famous photograph taken by Lawrence Beitler of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930.
A Lynching in the Heartland: Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930
by James H. Madison
On a hot August night in 1930 a crowd gathered in front of an Indiana jail—men, women, and children shouting and jeering, demanding that the sheriff release his three prisoners. Three African American teenagers—Tom Shipp, Abe Smith, and James Cameron—huddled inside their cells, charged with the murder of a white man and the rape of white woman. Some among the thousands of people in front of the jail formed a mob. They beat down the jail doors, pulled the three youths from their cells, brutally beat them, and dragged them to a tree on the courthouse square. At the last minute the mob spared Cameron, the youngest and most boyish of the trio. Smith and Shipp died, lynch ropes around their necks, their bodies hanging as the town photographer captured one of the most famous lynching photographs in American history.
This Marion, Indiana, lynching is among several thousand in American history, though unlike most it happened in the North and in a community with little harsh racial antagonism. It also happened “late,” decades after the heyday of late nineteenth-century vigilante violence. Yet the Marion tragedy, like many southern lynchings, was a spectacle lynching. The mob was not content to murder their victims at the jail or to carry them off to an isolated spot. They chose the courthouse square because it was the civic and geographical center of town. The mob deliberately performed their drama on that stage, using lynch ropes as their central props. They insisted the county coroner not immediately cut down the two bodies. They must hang through the night, they shouted, to send a message to blacks who stepped out of line. Long after the sheriff finally cut the lynch ropes, the photograph remained: the upper half with its vivid brutality; the lower half showing ordinary Americans without sorrow or shame.
Some in Marion and elsewhere challenged this extralegal violence. Flossie Bailey, the head of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), immediately sent demands for justice to local and state authorities and called personally on the governor. She also contacted Walter White, the head of the national NAACP. White travelled to Marion from his New York office to conduct his own investigation. He identified mob leaders and issued his report. The NAACP’s magazine, the Crisis, ran the brutal photograph as part of the organization’s long campaign against lynching. So did some African American newspapers. Many whites expressed regret but failed to act. The exception was the Indiana attorney general, James Ogden, who initiated his own investigation. Most local authorities resisted, and all claimed they could not identify mob leaders.
Outside pressures for justice, particularly from Ogden and White, eventually caused the trial of two accused mob leaders, but each was quickly found innocent by juries of twelve white men. No one was ever punished for the murder of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. A small victory came when Flossie Bailey successfully pressured the Indiana state legislature to pass a stricter antilynching law in 1931. Bailey and others also used the Indiana tragedy to argue for federal legislation, supported even by the Marion newspaper, but that movement failed.
The photograph and the memories remained. As late as the civil rights struggles of the 1950s some whites in Marion reminded African Americans of what would happened if they violated white norms. Increasingly, however, the memories turned to shame, sometimes suppressed in a willful forgetting, sometimes pulled out to encourage the necessity of justice for all.
No one forgot, certainly not black Americans. Sarah Weaver Pate, a teenager in 1930, told an interviewer in 1994 that “we’re like the rabbit now; we don’t trust the sound of a stick.”(1) James Cameron, the sixteen year-old who survived the lynching, never forgot. He titled his autobiography Time of Terror (2). He devoted the last decades of his life to telling the story, always in contexts of justice and American ideals. More Americans came to understand that lynching was not a sidebar but a central feature of American history.
James H. Madison is the Thomas and Kathryn Miller Professor of History at Indiana University. Among his publications is A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America (2001), which focuses on a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. Click on above photograph by Lawrence Beitler to order James H. Madison's book on Amazon.
(1) James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America (New York, 2001), 143.
(2) James Cameron, A Time of Terror (Milwaukee, 1980).
Travis Somerville T.K.A.M.
2015, oil, gesso, acrylic, and collage on canvas
48 by 36 in. (ca. 121 by 91 cm)
Travis Somerville Ballad for George Stinney
2013, graphite on vintage wooden Children Chair, rope, bible, metal pully, weight
George Junius Stinney, Jr. (October 21, 1929 – June 16, 1944) was, at age 14, the youngest person executed in the US in the 20th century.
Convicted in a two-hour trial of the murder of two young white girls. However, no physical evidence existed in the case, and the sole evidence against Stinney was the circumstantial fact that the girls had spoken with Stinney and his sister shortly before their murder, and the testimony of three police officers that Stinney had confessed. He was executed by electric chair on June 16, 1944.
Stinney walked to the execution chamber with a bible under his arm. As the boy was only 5 feet 1 inch (155 cm) tall and weighing just over 90 pounds (40 kg), his size (relative to adult prisoners) presented difficulties in securing him to the frame holding the electrodes. His bible was then used as a booster seat in the electric chair.
Since Stinney's conviction and execution, the question of his guilt, the validity of his confession, and the judicial process leading to his execution have been criticized as "suspicious at best and a miscarriage of justice at worst.'
On December 17, 2014, 70 years after his execution, Stinney's conviction was vacated by circuit judge Carmen Mullen, who cited that as the youth had not received any kind of defense at his trial, therefor violating his Sixth Amendment rights. The ruling was a rare use of the legal principle of coram nobis (a legal writ issued by a court to correct a previous error "of the most fundamental character" to "achieve justice" where "no other remedy" is available). Judge Mullen ruled that his confession was likely coerced and thus inadmissible.
Travis Somerville C. M. (Carson McCullers)
2014, oil, gesso, acrylic, and collage on canvas
48 by 36 in. (ca. 121 by 91 cm)
private collection, New York, NY
Travis Somerville Great Expeditions
2009, oil and mixed media on unstretched canvas
94 by 140 in. (ca. 238 by 355 cm)
Great Expeditions is a painting caught between hope and despair. The American flag bisects the painting from the left while a disembodied hand holding a pen is poking through the fabric and scribbling out a large oil derrick as if trying to come up with the next idea. Floating on a sea of bubbling crude, while simultaneously being run aground in a pile of dirt, is a rowboat christened Greed in Arabic, transporting a Klansman with a large sunflower sprouting from the top of his white hood. The vigilante symbol of bigotry, hate, and ignorance is being restrained and used to fertilize and generate a new and positive ideal of growth and prosperity. Somerville references the German painter Anselm Kiefer by using a sunflower as a symbol of hope and good things to come. In the upper right corner, a baptism is taking place under as floating blue tree limb with the rope - remains of a severed noose. Is it a spiritual, emotional, or ethnic cleansing we are witnessing? Below is a burning tire, a technique employed to create a smoke screen, to protect us from our enemies while also blinding us from the reality of our environmental demise. Along the border are collaged images from a 1948 Sportsman calendar.
cotton bale, chain, metal anchor
Travis Somerville Family Tree
2006, oil and mixed media on unstretched canvas
82 by 70 in. (ca. 208 by 178 cm)