New York

Lamar Peterson

In Lamar Peterson’s painting Michael Jackson in Winter (all works 2005), the self-anointed King of Pop is portrayed in a wintry landscape with paper snowflakes fluttering around his bewildered face. The world’s most visible outsider, Jackson has tried without success to find any group that will have him as a member (his relationship with the Nation of Islam is the latest to have come to an acrimonious end), and now fumbles along in his own lonely, freakish way. All of which makes him a fitting subject for Peterson, whose paintings are populated by lost-looking figures, usually black, who almost always wear sunglasses, expensive clothes, and dopey, absentminded smiles, blithely ignorant of the sinister undercurrents that swirl beneath them.

Peterson is not out to impress anyone with technical prowess; there is something unassuming about these paintings, with their straightforward, almost illustrational style, comfortable scale, and easygoing acrylic surfaces, which are occasionally sprinkled with glitter and rhinestones. But their folksy charm belies unsettling content. In The Ethereal Look of Scenes, a black couple picnics happily alongside a lioness wearing a rhinestone-studded collar. Holding the leash is a figure sporting a skeleton costume, with a wine bottle in the other hand, and, in place of a head, a clutch of black, bare tree branches overrun with ravens. In Untitled, two earnest preppy kids busy themselves driving a stake into the folds of a red-and-white tentlike cape worn by a very tall blue-skinned man brandishing a wand. Meanwhile, a black-cloaked monster with a large eye instead of a face points a menacing, skeletal hand. Perhaps the strangest element of all is the velvet rope circling the group. As in most of Peterson’s works, the setting is a Bob Ross–style mountain landscape that is striking not only because of the Surreal scenario playing out there but also because it points to the problematic exploitation of skin color in the marketing of “lifestyle”: Contemporary representations of black people are generally seen in urban, as opposed to bucolic, environments. Flipping the backdrop is a smart way of highlighting a racist assumption.

In his use of cartoonlike imagery, Peterson is indebted to the Hairy Who and their fellow travelers, in particular Peter Saul, who flagrantly rejects “high” art in canvases that are openly critical of the more dogmatically puritanical elements of American culture. The artist also pays homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat in a work in which the ’80s star appears, surrounded by creatures that easily might have emerged from his paintings, looking healthier and happier than he ever does in photographs (unlike Jackson, he seems to have finally found his milieu). But it’s a safe bet that classic Surrealism wields the greatest influence on Peterson’s work. In The Painter, a black man sits on a saddle that is connected to a Rube Goldbergesque contraption. He grips a large paintbrush topped with a horse’s head, while his face is distorted in the manner of the melting clocks in Salvador Dalí’s Persistence of Memory, 1931.

While it’s tempting to approach these works as puzzles to be solved, it might be more rewarding simply to revel in their absurdist wit, itself the sign of a subversive intelligence motivated by a spirited refusal of bogus classifications—not only those that confine artists to a specific “career path,” but also those that encourage biases centered on race and class.

Claire Barliant