A pair of Confederate flag paintings that Southern California artist G. Ray Kerciu created in response to the racially charged atmosphere at the University of Mississippi during the 1960s are set to go on display Saturday at the Laguna Art Museum.
Organizers said the display came together quickly this week in response to the national debate over the Confederate flag following last week’s shooting death of nine people at a predominantly black church in South Carolina.
Since the shooting, politicians in both parties have called for states in the South to stop flying the Confederate flag on government property, saying the flag represents racism and slavery. Among those politicians is South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, who has called for the flag to be removed from the Statehouse.
Malcolm Warner, executive director of the Laguna Art Museum, said in a phone interview that Kerciu’s paintings are "a complicated presentation of that flag imagery -- it’s by no means a celebration. On the contrary, he appropriated the Confederate flag imagery as a way of attacking the violence and racism that so appalled him in Mississippi.”
He said that Kerciu, a former museum trustee, approached him about displaying the paintings, which are part of a larger series he created. “We thought it would be an interesting contribution to the debate, showing how an artist can turn imagery against itself,” said Warner.
The two paintings, titled “Never” and “Ho,” belong to the artist and aren’t in the museum’s collection. The former painting shows the word “Never” in large letters set against the Confederate flag. The latter piece shows two Confederate flags flying in opposite directions.
“In museums, we always strive to be relevant,” said Warner. “So when debate swirls around public imagery, it means there needs to be an appropriate response to show works of art that chime in on the subject.”
Kerciu said in a separate interview that he kept the two paintings in his collection and “I never thought how they would be seen again. They were about what I went through at the time.”
He said he has thought a lot about the recent spate of racial unrest across the country: “I thought as an old man, we would be past all this stuff. But we’re not. It’s a great disappointment to me.”
The artist explained that “Never” was created in response to an incident when civil rights leader James Meredith came to the University of Mississippi campus. “He was guarded by federal agents. Some students wore black and white buttons that said ‘Never’ and that meant never would they integrate,” he recalled. “That’s one hell of a strong word.”
The painting “Ho" is a bit more conceptual in nature and features randomly chosen letters placed around two Confederate flags.
Kerciu taught for decades at Cal State Fullerton and lives in Laguna Beach. He is scheduled to talk about the paintings and his career at the museum July 23.
As a young man, “I wasn’t a radical,” the artist said. “I just got caught in the middle of the battle and joined the battle. Once your heart is into fighting the good fight, you continue it.”
The flag paintings are scheduled to remain on view through Sept. 27 at the Laguna Art Museum.