All posts in “painting”

Wyeth’s Cast of Characters: Helga Testorf

“The difference between me and a lot of painters is that I have to have a personal contact with my models . . . . I have to become enamored. Smitten. That’s what happened when I saw Helga.” – Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth painted Helga Testorf in secret for 13 years before the world, and his wife, saw the paintings for the first time. The secrecy and intimacy of these paintings stirred quite the scandal when they were first exhibited and they continue to be a source of much conjecture into the details surrounding Wyeth’s relationship with one of his greatest muses. Find out more about the character of Helga both within, and outside of, Wyeth’s life and paintings during a talk given by Patricia Junker, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, in the Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect galleries.

“Remember, he’s a Bergman . . . He’s creating a world they [his models] don’t realize and they’re acting out a part without any script.” – Betsy Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect is on view at Seattle Art Museum through January 15 and the next Wyeth Wednesday tour with Patricia Junker will take place January 3.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist & Social Media Manager

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SAM Gallery Artists on Seattle: Leslie Stoner, Liz Tran, Sheryl Westergreen, Stephen Rock

Seattle is one of those rare places where it isn’t considered droll to talk about the weather. The SAM Gallery artists in Color Excursion, on view December 8 through January 7, offer an escape from grey days into exuberant artwork. Below, three of the artists in this show share the ways that living in Seattle and the surrounding area impact the way they see the world. For such a moody and dramatic locale, you may be surprised by their vibrant, lively work. If you’re looking to recharge your senses, come to SAM Gallery for the Color Excursion Opening Reception on Thursday December 7, talk to the artists about their work, and find out how you can rent or buy artwork from SAM Gallery.

Leslie Stoner

This year I moved from Green Lake to Whidbey Island. Previously my work originated from a contemplative state of creation. I found inspiration through travel and memory and emotions but now living on Whidbey, I’m in it. On the island your surroundings are constantly in flux. The winds whip in and carry things away, the storms batter the shoreline leaving treasures on the beach. The nights are deep and dark and full of creatures. Everything feels alive and in a state of change. The beauty and the drama of my surroundings constantly barrage my eyes and fill my brain with endless creative ideas and the solitude of the island allows these ideas to come to fruition in my studio.

When invited to make a body of work for Color Excursion, I was elated. I’m addicted to color. I mix my own colors using wax and powdered pigments and when working with this medium it becomes something else, something more tactile. It’s hard to explain, it’s like I’m making a soup but I’m loading it with saturated color until it’s thick, and I want to eat it. That’s what initially drew me to encaustic painting and I think it’s what draws people to want to touch an encaustic painting.

Liz Tran

The use of color in my work is an unapologetic form of escapism from the long stretches of grey weather that continually blankets my Pacific Northwest home. Each year my palette of luminous, unnatural hues provides a defiant objection to winter’s approach. Pulsing fluorescent paints massage the naked eye with ultraviolet light, creating an energized glow impervious to dull environments. Maroon does not belong to me. Tubes of brown remain unopened. There is safety in muteness. My paintings speak to extroversion, experimentation, and play. Through color, I aim to activate.

Sheryl Westergreen

Color Excursion immediately brought to mind the idea of travel, taking an excursion lavish with color. My work in this show was inspired by a trip to South America one year ago. Although the paintings for this show do not reflect Seattle, much of my work is inspired by my daily routines and surroundings. For example, the Across the Lake, Cloud Dreams, Inside a Cloud, and Inside a Leaf series are all the result of my daily walks in my Seattle neighborhood.

I let my experiences germinate and then abstract them on the canvas, translating a memory of a place or an experience. I work in layers of color and compose the image while working. My paintings are oil on canvas or board. Working with oil means that each layer needs to have a bit of time to dry before the next layer can be applied. I find that when I return to the piece it changes and evolves in surprising ways.

Stephen Rock

This new work at SAM Gallery is from a series of unique digital mixed media prints called the Gardeners Journal. The nature of the Northwest has always been a part of my life having grown up in eastern Washington. With this body of work, it becomes a touchstone away from the tech-focused culture of our evolving city. My digital print studio keeps me in front of a computer monitor much of the time. As a retreat from the stream of  social media I find refuge out my window, a slight turn of the head away from the monitor. I have found the organic shapes and colors of my garden to be a creative counterpoint to the drone of data. By exploring abstracted shapes and forms found in nature, this new work provides endless metaphors and narratives and visually blend the creative tools of traditional art making with new digital possibilities to find a balanced voice in the moods and aesthetics of the region.

Images: Detail of Leslie Stoner’s studio, photo: Alison Blomgren. Afterglow Two, Liz Tran, 30 x 24 in., mixed media on panel. Easter Island, Chile, Sheryl Westergreen, 36 x 36 in., oil on canvas. Like a garden splashed across the landscape, Stephen Rock, 36 x 36 in., pigmented print, watercolor, gouache.
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Object of the Week: Still Life with Calendar

As we prepare for the last 31 days in our 2017 calendars, it becomes clear how quickly time flies. Where did the year go? In this 1956 work by Northwest artist Wendell Brazeau, Still Life with Calendar, time is certainly a preoccupation, as well as developments in abstraction imported from Europe during the years following World War II.

A painting that could only exist after the pictorial revolution brought about by Cubism, and Paul Cézanne before that, this work is a marker of an important moment in American painting when European theories made their way to artists living and working in the United States. Like many, Brazeau studied in Paris and worked first-hand with the European avant-garde, bringing such ideas back to the Northwest and pollinating the region with new modernist theories.[1]

One of the main genres of Western art, the still life takes many forms; whether arrangements of symbolic objects that point to the brevity of human life,[2] or celebrations of material wealth, the still life has fascinated artists for centuries. In more recent art history, the still life has become a foundation for formal experimentation.

Indeed, here flat geometric forms and bright planes of color unify a spatially ambiguous plane. We see lemons or limes perched precariously on the left-hand corner of the table, as well as a chair, coffee pot, flower vase, and fruit basket, all nearly sliding from their fixed positions. Behind this array of multi-toned vessels and objects we also see a small section of an incomplete calendar—a tongue-in-cheek inclusion that seems to simultaneously honor and scrap the genre’s interest with the passage of time. A knowing departure from the still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, Still Life with Calendar playfully explores the possibilities of abstraction while wittily honoring the subject’s antecedents.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Still Life with Calendar, 1956, Wendell Brazeau, oil on board, 41 3/4 x 46 in., Northwest Annual Purchase Fund, 56.254 © William A. Brazeau
[1] Brazeau studied art at the University of Washington for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. For more, please see Barbara Johns, Modern Art from the Pacific Northwest in the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1990), 16.
[2] Vanitas, for example, contain objects—such as musical instruments, skulls, candles, and flowers—that serve to remind the viewer of their own mortality, as well as the worthless pursuit of earthly goods and pleasures.
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Object of the Week: Union

Sam Gilliam’s 1977 painting Union tantalizes with its tactility. It’s rhythm, texture, color, and shade; bright and inviting, dark and rough. It’s free-form abstraction raked as a zen garden, and grounded by geometric shape.

Over the course of his career Gilliam has shown a deep interest in painting as a physical process. He made waves in the art world in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when he displayed paint on canvas in innovative ways. He began suspending his canvases, hanging them by corners like linen sheets on a laundry line, or pinning them up at certain points, allowing the canvas to cascade downward in thick, heavy folds. While this body of work created a sculptural experience of the canvas, his series of Black Paintings, of which Union is a prime example, created a sculptural experience with paint. In these works he used a shag-rug rake to create a notched surface texture that unifies the painting.

Interestingly, Gilliam started out as a representational painter. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, he studied at the University of Louisville, earning his BA in 1955 and his MA in 1961. In the ‘60s he relocated to Washington, DC, where fate awaited. In DC Gilliam joined up with the artists who would become known as the Washington Color School—a group working in abstract modes to press the expressive potential of color.

In his own milieu Gilliam was a sponge, always soaking up wisdom, but also dispensing it. Discussing artists who have influenced him in a recent interview, he begins with Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis but covers a staggering range after them, speaking smoothly on Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Claude Monet, Georges Braque, Arthur Dove, Tintoretto, Alice Denney, Jan van Eyck, and David Smith. Add to that mix: jazz music, especially the tunes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk; curators like Walter Hopps, one-time director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art; symbols, like the American flag; and Washington’s urban design, its circular hub and radiating arteries.[1] Gilliam links his own productivity with his ability to recognize fine material: “There’s a mental connection that’s very good between the activity of painting and, let’s say, the visual and the listening process from the outside, which is always stimulating.”[2]

Though Gilliam’s beginnings were tied to the figure, his future was bound in colorful abstraction. His first one-man show in DC, held at Adams-Morgan Gallery in 1963, featured exclusively representational paintings, while his second show, held just a year later, featured no representational works.[3] Gilliam recounts that one of the DC artists, Tom Downing, played a large part in encouraging this shift: “Tom saw an exhibition of mine that was entirely figurative plus a series of watercolors on a grid, which were Klee-like. He suggested that, obviously, the figurative painting was unnecessary and that the watercolors were right in. So, I guess he’s the one that got me started making abstract paintings.”[4]

Gilliam’s work now graces prominent collections all over the country, and his Black Paintings have been collected by many important museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. We can safely say that his influences, and his innovations, have served him well.

Check out Union and a group of earlier paintings in the Sam Gilliam exhibition on view now at SAM!

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Union, 1977, Sam Gilliam (American, b. 1933), acrylic on canvas, 55 x 65 ½ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Peirolo, 82.117 © Copyright the artist. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.
[1] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82-92.
[2] Sam Gilliam, 92.
[3] Gilliam/Edwards/Williams: Extensions. Ex. Cat. Hartford, Conn.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1974; 15.
[4] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82.
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Object of the Week: A Shepherdess Adorned with Flowers

In an old photo from SAM’s archive, we see the inimitable Dottie Malone examining the museum’s painting by Dutch master Gerrit van Honthorst before it was exhibited in the two newly finished Kress galleries in October, 1954. There’s something of straitlaced concern visible on her face; her left arm fully outstretched, she seems to be keeping the painting at a safe distance. She’s at least not visibly impressed. I wonder if the low-cut blouses of the three shepherdess figures, and the abundant flesh laid bare, didn’t quite meet with her approval. If she were scandalized in the ‘50s, she would have been far from the last. The painting is coming up on 400 years old and can still sometimes draw a blush or a stern look of disapproval. What an accomplishment!

Dottie Malone examining the painting

Besides being sexy, Honthorst’s A Shepherdess Adorned with Flowers is masterfully painted, rosy pinks and mellifluous yellows playing against the porcelain skin of its heroines. Theatrical light, a reminder of Caravaggio’s lasting influence on Honthorst, captures the figures as actors in a stage play—and in a sense, that’s what they are. Painted to accommodate courtly and aristocratic taste, pastoral scenes like this one offered a momentary escape from the pressures and strictures of the early modern world. Blatantly artificial, they conjured an idealized world of love and leisure, reflecting nostalgic desires for intimacy with nature and human desires for release from the morals and rituals that governed daily life. Responding to a world that disallowed dalliances, Honthorst imagines a more primal world that blithely sanctions them. Given the look of availability about the main figure, few would be surprised to hear that literary and visual traditions of the time linked the shepherdess and the sex worker.

Officially acquired in 1961, SAM had the painting seven years earlier than that. On May 12, 1954, Kress Foundation art director Guy Emerson wrote to Dr. Fuller with updates on the Foundation’s recent activities, including a mention of our fine Honthorst painting: “I am enclosing a photograph of a painting by our old friend Honthorst which we all saw at Knoedler’s last week and like very much. Mr. Kress thought that it ought to go to the National Gallery and Walker and Modestini felt that it was the best Honthorst they had seen in America. It is gay and fresh and full of color and life.” In short order, the Kress Foundation had acquired the painting with Dr. Fuller and SAM in mind.

Telegram

The Honthorst arrived in a batch of artworks from the Kress Foundation that also included Bernardo Strozzi’s Hagar and the Angel, Veronese’s Venus and Adonis, Abraham van Beyeren’s Banquet Still Life, and Massimiliano Soldani’s bronze The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. October 15, 1954 marked the first display of the Honthorst in Seattle, the grand opening of SAM’s Kress galleries, and the confirmation of an important relationship between the museum and the foundation.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

A Shepherdess Adorned with Flowers, 1627, Gerrit van Honthorst (Dutch, 1590-1656), oil on canvas, 43 9/16 x 39 13/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 61.156, Photo: Paul Macapia.
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Object of the Week: The Triumph of Valor over Time

As an arts institution situated in a once very isolated part of the country, the Seattle Art Museum grew and developed into the museum it is today only by the generosity and boldness of its supporters. Our co-founders, Dr. Richard Fuller and Margaret MacTavish Fuller, both played central roles in SAM’s success story. Another figure who became crucial to the museum in its formative years was Sherman E. Lee, who served as Assistant Director and Associate Director over four years at SAM, 1948–1952.

Lee was a specialist in Asian art, and Dr. Fuller brought him on board specifically to grow this part of the collection, but his impact would be felt in much broader ways. It was Lee who had the vision to convincingly lobby for Seattle to be included in a regional galleries program launched by the Kress Foundation during Lee’s tenure at SAM. The Kress Collection was a five-and-dime fortune converted into a nearly unmatched holding of European Old Master artworks. As a result of Lee’s ambition, Seattle and SAM became one of 18 regional sites selected to host pieces of the same prestigious collection that fills much of the Renaissance galleries at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

A full view of The Triumph of Valor over Time by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Not only was SAM chosen to receive some of the fine Kress pictures, but in a moment of plucky brilliance, Lee negotiated for an even better group of artworks than were originally intended for Seattle. In May 1950, Lee made his case to Kress Foundation art director Guy Emerson, writing that “our Ancient, Medieval, and Oriental collections contain many master works comparable to some of the famous paintings in the National Gallery and those in Mr. Kress’ marvelous living room. Consequently, we are interested in seeing our own Western tradition of painting represented by works which will bear comparison with the others.”1 His is a bold proclamation of Northwest arts pride, the fruits of which we’re still enjoying today, as the Kress artworks remain the core of SAM’s European painting and sculpture collection.

As good as Sherman Lee was for SAM, and for the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he would serve as director from 1958 until 1983, he and SAM almost missed big on one of the most memorable pieces in our collection. Looking over the original list proposed by the Kress Foundation, Lee was enthused about a sketch by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo but had reservations about the related ceiling fresco, transferred to canvas: “one or two of the proposed gifts are extraordinarily exciting, notably the Tiepolo sketch (incidentally, the ceiling itself is too large for us).”2

Too big?! Incidentally?! Thank goodness that wasn’t the end of the conversation. Imagine if we missed out on the remarkable Tiepolo ceiling The Triumph of Valor over Time because of its awesome dimensions. What a loss it would have been. In the end, accommodations were made, with SAM raising the ceiling height of its Kress-devoted gallery five feet in order to provide a suitably illusionistic viewing experience.

Installation view of SAM's Porcelain Room

Today, The Triumph of Valor over Time looms above the Porcelain Room, where its 18th-century aesthetic and pastel palette play well with the artfully arranged decorative objects filling the space. In a nearby gallery you’ll spot the masterful little bozetto, or painting sketch, that initially caught Sherman Lee’s eye.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGES: The Triumph of Valor over Time, ca. 1757, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, 1696-1770), fresco transferred to canvas, 200 x 90 in. Samuel H. Kress Collection, 61.170, Photo: Paul Macapia. Installation view of the Porcelain Room at the Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Paul Macapia.
1 Quoted by Marilyn Perry in “The Kress Collection,” in A Gift to America: Masterpieces of European Painting from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, ex. cat., New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with the North Carolina Museum of Art; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Seattle Art Museum; and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1994; p. 28.
2 Ibid., 29.
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Object of the Week: Untitled

“After many years in my studio I found that the light from the surface was my predominant media. The interface of light and surface . . . . While ‘light and surface’ is a rather technical triptych of words, my emotional concern is how it feels to make the art.”
—Larry Bell

In 1960s Los Angeles, a loosely-affiliated group of artists began working not with paint and canvas, clay and wood, charcoal and pen, but with two less concrete mediums: light and space. The so-called (perhaps unimaginatively) Light and Space artists were responding to new ideas about viewer perception in art, and experimenting with new materials that were suddenly widely available from Southern California-based industries: polyester resin, coated glass, Plexiglas, neon.

While artists in New York were working with similarly industrial materials and playing with the viewer’s perception of space, the emphasis on light as a medium became unique to the L.A. group. This seems to have been no accident, but a response to the place itself—there’s a certain quality of radiant light that exists in Southern California, where the sun always shines, reflecting on the waves and cars and surfboards and refracting through the immutable smog. Say what you will about L.A., but they don’t make light like that anywhere else.

So it stands to reason that Larry Bell in his Venice Beach studio, immersed in California light and with direct access to newly available materials, would become interested in the emotive potentials of light and surface. Bell began his career as a painter, but soon became fascinated with the properties of glass after working at a picture framing shop. He experimented simultaneously with abstract painting and small constructions of cracked glass, and it wasn’t long before the two parallel practices began to merge—until he added glass onto a painting itself:

“Adding glass [to a canvas] was totally intuitive. I liked the work’s feeling of simplicity, and the fact that the imagery now included the wall behind the canvas. This led to incorporating the light in front of the canvas in an ‘unpainterly’ way. I chose mirrors to replace the clear glass. I scraped away the silvering so that the reflected light and the transmitted light created the shape of a tesseract, which was also the shape of the canvases.

Representing volume, created with light, reflected and transmitted, was now part of my process. . . . Unconsciously, I had become a sculptor.”

Bell’s Untitled of 1967, on view in SAM’s Light and Space exhibition, is the result of this unconscious metamorphosis. A perfect cube made of coated glass, the work is a pure expression of volume, space contained and revealed. The thin, metal film which coats the glass allows the light filtering through the material to reflect and refract in unique ways. The edges emerge and disappear, and the sides darken and lighten as you move around the work. Though all six sides of the cube are identical, no two people will experience the same view of the whole—everything depends on your position in relation to the object, and its position in relation to a ray of light.

For many of the Light and Space artists, an artwork only reached its full potential when it was engaged in this relationship with a viewer—an object in an empty room without anyone to look at it is, in essence, not doing its job. Bell was no exception to this belief: “In my opinion all artwork is stored energy. The art releases its power whenever a viewer becomes a dreamer.” Dream on, friends, and come see what kind of energy this enigmatic box releases for you.

—Carrie Dedon, Modern and Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant

Image: Untitled, 1967, Larry Bell, American, b. 1939, silicon-monoxide-coated glass and chrome-plated metal, 59 x 22 x 22in. Gift of Anne Gerber, 2000.168, ©Larry Bell, Photo: Natali Wiseman.
All quotes are excerpted from Larry Bell, Zones of Experience, exh. cat. (Albuquerque, NM: Albuquerque Museum, 1997).
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Kehinde Wiley’s Galvanizing Impact

“The history of painting by and large has pictured very few black and brown people, and in particular very few black men. My interest is in countering that absence.”

Kehinde Wiley

Experiencing a meteoric rise on the art scene, Los Angeles native Kehinde Wiley has assumed his place as an influential contemporary American artist. Graduating from the influential Yale School of Art, Wiley received his MFA from the program in 2001. The artist went from the Ivy League to a leading art program—residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem. It was there that a lot of things came together for Wiley in the context of the show he was working on: he found inspiration in the assertive and self-empowered young men of the neighborhood. This kicked off the artist’s serious work in portraiture on modes of representation and the black body.

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

“It’s almost like he’s looking back into history to envision a new present and a new future,” said Catharina Manchanda, Seattle Art Museum’s Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is a 14-year retrospective of the artist’s work that features 60 works, including his signature portraits of African American men reworked in the grand portraiture traditions of Western culture, as well as sculptures, videos, and stained glass windows.

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

The Brooklyn Art Museum organized the exhibition, which is traveling to a number of cities around the country, experiencing a rousing reception. “He’s received a great amount of attention in part because the work is so captivating, but perhaps what adds special urgency to the work are the political discussions Americans have been having over the course of the last year regarding the lives of black men and women in this country,” Manchanda said. “There is so much possibility in this moment. It’s my hope that this exhibition will engage viewers in an important conversation, as well as create a galvanizing experience that will last long after they leave the galleries.”

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

Wiley does not copy traditional portraiture styles from the 18th and 19th centuries, but rather creates mashups where he’s drawing from many sources, like a jazz artist improvising or a hip hop artist mixing pieces of songs together using different ideas and references. The same process—mining elements and then combining them from various sources—fuels Wiley’s work: classic portraiture styles and floral wallpaper designs from the 19th century, among others, serve as inspiration. Altered in color as much as detailing, these compositions frame and elevate his contemporary subjects.

Also on view in the exhibition is the full length film, An Economy of Grace, which documents Wiley as he steps out of his comfort zone to create a series of classical portraits of African-American women for the first time. The exhibition includes works from this project and highlights Wiley’s collaboration with fashion designer Riccardo Tisci at the couture firm Givenchy to design gowns inspired by 19th- and 20th century paintings.

Don’t miss this exhibition— which closes very soon on May 8! We also invite you to hear from scholar and independent curator Tumelo Mosaka, who will be at Seattle Art Museum on Thursday, April 14, to explore topics related to the exhibition and Wiley’s unapologetic ability to address the historical absence of the black figure by creating portraits of his own desire.

Images: Photo: Stephanie Fink. Installation views of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at Seattle Art Museum, Photos: Elizabeth Crook, © Seattle Art Museum.
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Object of the Week: Les Années 90 (The Nineties)

Congolese artist Chéri Samba has said that he likes to incorporate text into his narrative paintings because it keeps the viewer’s eye on the art longer. For visitors who find Samba’s acrylic painting of The Nineties in our Emblems of Encounter installation, it’s not just the French text that needs deciphering. Untangling what’s happening in the picture—as well as thinking about how the text informs the scene—all takes time and effort. Samba has created an image rich with symbolism and relationships for sorting out, and there’s plenty to delve into before even getting to the language.

Most clearly, the scene shows us two men. In the lower left, a figure in a blue suit, sleeves rolled up, lounges passively. His pocket is stuffed with cash, while the chest next to him is noticeably empty. His brown skin contrasts the fair skin of the second man. He looks and gestures toward this figure, who stands near the center of the composition, donning green pants and a white jacket, and gripping a briefcase in his left hand. He’s not looking back at the seated figure to receive the gesture. Instead, he gazes outward purposefully, toward the portion of the canvas where threatening clouds have lifted just a bit.

Les Années 90 (detail) by Cheri Samba

There’s a ground in a burnt sienna color very nearly connecting them both, except for a path of moody blue water. The scale of the figures—the man in the blue suit fills about twice as much of the canvas as the other man—also communicates to us that there’s distance between them. Our view of the water ends as it comes to what looks like a grey stone wall, its edge jagged like the irregular coastlines of the two land masses on which the figures stand. With the rough wall, forming a barrier between the men, there’s further separation where connection seems more natural.

The man in the blue suit is seated on a grassy green surface. Above and behind him, we see the outline of the continent of Africa, filled in with the same fertile green, composed of many short marks, as blades of grass in a field. The artist has laid a symbol onto the map, and because of its shape and function we’d expect this to be an “x”–only one arm of this symbol is significantly longer than the others, so the shape more closely resembles a cross.

Samba’s painting offers a biting satire of hypocrisy and greed, in a scene reflecting on corrupt leadership and rapacious opportunism. Judging by the work’s title, The Nineties, we imagine the artist is reflecting on a specific time period and likely responding to certain wrongs. That he painted this only in 1991 adds even more weightiness to the picture; it seems to be a dark vision of what he foresaw unfolding as much as a rebuke of events he had already witnessed.

Emblems of Encounter installation at Seattle Art Museum

In Emblems of Encounter, Samba’s thoughtful critique joins a group of objects that chart 500 years of the complex and difficult history of European-African interaction. Considering The Nineties, even without the specific narrative laid out, I’m reminded that our understanding of nuanced histories depends, to a large extent, on what side of the shore we stand as we perceive them.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Les Années 90 (The Nineties), 1991, Cheri Samba (Congolese, born 1956), acrylic on canvas, 59 x 77 x 1 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 93.81, © Cheri Samba. Les Années 90 (The Nineties) (detail). Salt cellar, ca. 1490-1530, Sapi culture, Sierra Leone, ivory, 6 3/4 x 3 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck, 68.30.
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