Art review: Travis Somerville at Charlie James Gallery


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As it becomes apparent that the U.S. is not in fact a post-racial nation, we find that race and racism must be reckoned with in new and hopefully more complex and creative ways. Travis Somerville’s exhibition at Charlie James acknowledges this ongoing need to explore the history of race and representation, but unfortunately fails to add anything new to the discussion.

Somerville addresses minstrelsy and the legacy of slavery in a suite of paintings, drawings and sculptures that also were shown last fall at Otis College of Art and Design. The paintings include images of blackface performers, hooded Klansmen and tangled nooses atop collages of vintage sheet music and broadsides. These images, in some cases accompanied by mock-cheerful advertising slogans, float in an indeterminate space reminiscent of 1980s pastiche. This stylistic reference, along with their blunt, in-your-face subject matter, makes the paintings seem dated, although they were all created in the last couple of years.


One sculpture feels especially old-fashioned: a bust of Abraham Lincoln chained at the neck to a black bowling ball. Although it successfully reminds us how Lincoln was hamstrung over the issue of slavery, it’s so heavy-handed that it reduces this complex issue to a one-liner.

That’s largely the problem with this work – it covers ground already broken by African American artists such as Betye Saar and Robert Colescott, and fails to build upon it, as younger artists such as Kara Walker and Titus Kaphar have. It’s worth noting that Somerville is a white Southerner, the son of civil rights activists, and his works do come across as earnest and heartfelt. But the terms of the discussion have moved on.

– Sharon Mizota

Charlie James Gallery, 975 Chung King Road, L.A., (213) 687-0844, through April 17. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.

Images: Great Expeditions and Sing Out America, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery.