Travis Somerville

Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design
9045 Lincoln Boulevard
October 3, 2009–December 12, 2009

Travis Somerville, The New Land of Lincoln, 2009, oil, oil stick, and mixed media on paper on canvas, 80 x 96".

Travis Somerville’s work addresses the tangled knot of issues surrounding the history of race in America. Using such loaded images as a noose, hooded clansmen, and the Confederate flag in a self-consciously liberal way is laced with difficulties, yet Somerville takes such challenges on with gusto in a new exhibition, “Dedicated to the Proposition.” Conceptualized as a contemporary response to Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, the exhibition is fraught with aggressive images, including a sculpture of Lincoln’s head on a ball and chain, and assorted representations of people in blackface.

Several large paintings and collages are composed on canvases layered with song sheets, newspaper clippings, and advertisements from the 1960s, the tumultuous decade in which Somerville came of age in a white liberal household in Georgia. Filled with powerful imagery, these works are laden with historical and allegorical narratives that together form a thought-provoking visual inquiry. Three large installations, including a series of water fountains with labels inspired by US census categories and corresponding imagery based on stereotypes, are more heavy-handed and leave less room for interpretation.

The detail and care with which Somerville constructs each work, alongside the artist’s insistence that viewers consider complex and unresolved issues—including prejudice, post-Katrina New Orleans, urban blight, the conditions of migrant workers, and the treatment of Muslims in America after 9/11—create a charged and vital body of work.

Annie Buckley