I see art as an adventure. I never know how I’m going to feel, where my mind will go, the worlds I’ll get to access, or the new understanding I may obtain. I’ve seen art reproduced in books and magazines, but nothing compares to the view in real life. I’ve seen paintings that brought me to tears, colors that raced my heart, textures that tickled my eyes, and scale that stomped my small thoughts.
February was Black History month, and I wanted to expand my understanding, so I went to Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas at the Seattle Art Museum. This show features three black artists and poses the question, “Who paints and writes history?”
The artwork is exhilarating. If you have the chance, stop reading and see it for yourself. Get lost in this world. If you can’t make it, try to view these artists’ works somewhere else. They are haunting, magical, powerful, and epic.
I arrive at the entrance and hand the woman in charge my ticket. I enter to find lots of people standing around for a Thursday afternoon, but it’s First Thursday–that’s the first Thursday of the month and entrance to the museum is free, and this show is half off.
As soon as I enter, I hear an older couple talking through their perspectives on the first painting, and I don’t want their opinions tainting my view, so I dash into the next room. I figure I’ll catch this painting on the way out.
The next room is super quiet. Everyone is studying the paintings. They are Robert Colescott’s work. I notice that my posture is closed off, my arms crossed in front of my stomach. I move my hands behind me to rest them on my lower back and shift into an open position. I start to take in the paintings. I have trouble understanding them.
Some paintings are more evident than others, but I feel I need more knowledge of history and art history to understand. I read the museum labels to get a better take on them. These paintings have many layers, and I dive in and I need lots of time. It’s more cerebral, and I’m just trying to keep up. I listen to an audio clip where the artist says, “It’s a lot more than a one-liner . . . it’s about white perceptions of Black people.” I think that if I comprehended it all, it would blow my mind. But even in my ignorance I know I’m in the presence of a lost perspective. A voice screaming to be heard.
I move on to the next room. This room features the Souvenir Series by Kerry James Marshall.
It already feels different. It’s ethereal. The paintings feel like I crossed over to a spirit world. The contrast of black and white and shiny bits on the canvas drop me to a bench where I sit entranced by the view.
They are loose, not framed, with finished edges and grommets like a flag.
The living rooms in the paintings feel comfortable, and they remind me of my hometown and visiting my great aunt on her farm. I can almost smell the stale air that emanates from the old furniture.
One of the angels from the living rooms sits hunched. Her spine crooked from a lifetime of sitting, waiting for people to pay their respects.
I can’t help but look at the shiny bits and white trumpets and names written to the edges. Some names I recognize, most I don’t.
The paintings are magical. If ever canvas could sing, these would.
I love how dark their faces are, and then I’m reminded of a painting I saw downstairs that I loved called The Lost Boys. I check the photos on my phone, and sure enough, it’s the same artist. Their faces are so black you can barely make out their features. It’s haunting, like a ghost that has been there all along but no one saw.
I get close and see that the colors used to create the highlights on the face are a tad bit lighter than the base color. I can’t stop looking. I sit in this room for 13 minutes.
I half expect one of the living room angels to walk out of the painting and take my hand. I’d go willingly for the opportunity to hang out with them and ask questions. There is a sense of sadness. I feel like I need to be quiet. It’s quiet time. Reflection time. There are shrines in the paintings. I want to light a candle for the names in the corners. I want to know who they were and honor their lives.
Then there’s a whisper from the adjacent wall. The lady in this painting is trying to tell me something or spy on me. The silver foil looks like a prison from across the room, so I get closer to see what she has to say.
There are years written next to the vertical blinds and then an opening. Was this the year they opened? Was she almost free only to be locked back up?
Is the woman in the painting watching me? Learning from what I do? I want to let her out. Ask her if she wants to go outside and play. Maybe share a snack. But she’s stuck. She’s also shy. She doesn’t want to get in trouble. Forever trapped behind that silver blind.
I feel like I did as a child, and my mom would say to me, on the stoop outside the front door of my relative’s house, “Be on your best behavior, we’re at Aunt Rachel’s house. No running. Understood?” “Yes,” I would say. This room is a respectful place. I need my manners. But like the candy dish at my aunt’s, I can’t control myself. I keep getting closer to the paintings and admiring the shiny bits. I try not to block the view of others. Hypnotized by all that they have to offer but I also feel a bit disrespectful in doing so, like I shouldn’t be so dazzled by the memorial, but it was too beautiful to ignore.
It is hard to leave this space, but I slowly force my gaze to the painting in the next room. Caught in the tractor beam of color from School of Beauty, School of Culture I walk like a zombie until I’m in front of it. The color. My eyes can’t get enough of it.
Then, I see the very dark black faces again. There’s golden foil. The painting is alive and noisy. I can almost hear the roar of the voices in the beauty salon.
The floor, the shoes,
The bodies! I get close again. I’m right at the line on the floor as my eyes drink up the color.
I read the description: “Marshall replaces the skull with a specter of the blond white princess from the Disney film Sleeping Beauty–an exaggerated European ideal of beauty that is ignored by all except the two children in the foreground.” – Catharina Manchanda
I completely missed the kids and Sleeping Beauty, but now I can’t help but look at them. I’m surprised at how I could look at a painting and miss something so obvious. I giggle a little bit. I love how the children are playing with it, and the baby boys posture is perfect. They seem intrigued but also clueless. It feels like they are playing with the devil. I want one of the ladies in the room to yell, “put that down!” I’ve had a lifetime of dealing with the exaggerated European ideal of woman and know how dangerous it is.
“The beauty shop is the place where women go to make and re-make themselves into the image they want to project. And yet, even in this place that reinforces aspects of beauty reflecting black women’s particularities, they are haunted by the specter of a blond ideal.” -Kerry James Marshall
I’m suddenly aware that I am blond. I wonder to myself if I would be considered some fragment of the “ideal?” Outside this exhibit, I would say, “No.” But now, I’m beginning to think, “maybe.” Maybe I’m closer than I think. I’m humbled as I move into the next room featuring Mickalene Thomas.
This painting looks like how I feel; a bit broke up. The rhinestones are brilliant, and the gold foil reflects the light.
Again, a magical detailed, fascinating construction that lures me in.
After a few minutes of perusing the painting, I say to myself, “I need this chick right now. I need a strong, powerful woman. But she’s also bits and pieces. Is she torn apart? Or is she coming together?”
Then I see this giant wall painting of three women, whom I apparently interrupted and are looking at me. They are so intimidating that I wait to take the photo until I am outside the room. Before that, I do another rude thing and stare at them. They are beautiful, confident, and mesmerizing with all the rhinestones and color, but their gaze feels like I am forcing a draw or daring to stare at Medusa. Will I turn to stone? No, but I feel the weight of my interruption.
The gold rhinestones that made up the woman’s afro remind me of another work of art I saw at SAM years ago, I recheck my phone, and yep, it’s’ the same artist.
I remember how powerful this woman looked and I longed for her confidence.
I move to a series of paintings that show the same pose of a black woman jumping into a black man’s arms but from different angles. There is joy on their faces. The painting is black and white and feels like a lovely memory.
I go back to the beginning to see the first painting I missed but there is now a guide giving a tour talking loud about symbolism and stance, and I don’t feel like listening.
I return to The Souvenir room. Fortunately, the guide’s voice doesn’t carry into this space. I sit, grateful for the silence, and look up to the angel with a face so dark it’s almost lost. I envision myself entering the living room. I hug the angel, and thank him for protecting this sacred space. I hold his hand and then quietly leave.