'Figuring History’ opens February 14, featuring paintings by Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall and Mickalene Thomas
By Sara Morosi
AN UPCOMING EXHIBITION at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), which features works by artists Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas and the late Robert Colescott, reexamines history painting as an art form used to represent past narratives. Figuring History offers a retelling of America’s past through the African-American perspective, largely absent from the genre.
For SAM’s modern art curator Catharina Manchanda, the vision for a cross-generational conversation always included Colescott, Marshall and Thomas, whose pieces call on formative experiences during The Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement and 21st-century gender and sexuality politics, collectively. “History painting shows the ambition of an artist to engage key issues of a particular time but render them in a much larger historical context,” says Manchanda. “Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall and Mickalene Thomas are deeply invested in painting as a medium, as much as they’re invested in complicating our readings of history and representation.”
Through a library of selected readings as well as a staged “living room” installation by Thomas, Manchanda seeks to offer a space to make museum visitors feel open and at home, and that will engender further exploration and conversation around these themes in the large-scale works. “There is an opportunity for artists and institutions, especially museums and other cultural institutions, to frame constructive sets of questions,” says Manchanda. “One exhibition won’t address all the things that need to change, but I hope it will lead people to be curious about the issues connected to the exhibition and the art.”
In addition to the installation, Thomas will have three works on display titled Maya, Racquel: Come to Me and Resist, created specifically for Figuring History. Thomas cites Colescott and Marshall as the inspiration behind the pieces. “It’s exciting for me to look toward artists I’ve never really considered fundamentally in my practice as a resource when it comes to process, but allowing them to enter and have the result be something completely unexpected.” Resist uses found photography from the civil rights movement and silkscreen technique, translated to canvas. “I’m not sure that anyone would recognize it [Resist] as my work. It’s outside of my normal realm,” she says.
Figuring History will run through May 13, 2018.