Southern Discomfort

Travis Somerville's paintings have been called provocative, brilliant - and racist

"Do you want to see something weird?" asks Travis Somerville, pulling a Ku Klux Klan hood off a bust of John F. Kennedy.

The bust is actually a cheap piggy bank made out of gold-colored plastic, and its rendering of Kennedy isn't very accurate; at first glance it could be a sculpture of any imperious-looking white guy. But the inscription on the base quotes Kennedy's famous inaugural appeal to "[a]sk not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Somerville turns the bust around, and here's the weird part: The coin slot is a hole in the back of Kennedy's head.

The tchotchke is just one piece of clutter in Travis Somerville's studio, a clean, large room that's bathed in afternoon light and sits at the end of a long hallway in the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard artists' complex. The room is filled with racks of rolled-up paintings, art supplies, a modest collection of rockabilly CDs, and Southern-themed books like the copy of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying that sits on top of a Bible on a stool. Somerville is 38 years old, but his boyish face takes 10 years off his looks; dressed in blue jeans with his hair slicked back, he looks like he moonlights playing doghouse bass in a country band. His speech is easygoing and relaxed -- a Southern accent formed by a childhood spent in Tennessee and Georgia -- and he takes his time with talking, as if the process of explaining himself is a new one to him. Painting is a solitary job, occupying eight hours a day, six days a week. "I'll be here in the studio all day long, and I'll realize sometimes that I haven't said a word all day," he says.

That's fine; his paintings speak for him, loudly. Large-scale and rooted in the imagery of race relations, their size and language seem deliberately designed to provoke -- or offend. They're visceral if ambiguous paintings: Malcolm X in a Klan hood, the Rev. Martin Luther King paired with the Nike "swoosh" logo, a white family in blackface, words like "Negro," "Dixie," and "cracker" screaming from the canvas. Somerville has been working with this subject matter for the past three years, and though he is not the first artist to think of using the black Southern iconography as his palette, he may be the only white one.

Three paintings-in-progress hang on the studio walls. One presents a black man in a straw hat, corncob pipe in his mouth and cork quizzically shoved into one eye socket. Next to it is a portrait of a stern-faced Muhammad Ali with the words "Johnny Reb" playfully painted underneath (after the Sept. 11 attacks, Somerville changed the words to "I am Muslim, I am an American"). The third painting is huge -- about 5 feet high by 8 feet wide -- and busy with imagery. Union soldiers are hunkered down in the lower right corner, aiming their rifles at Brer Rabbit from Disney's Song of the South, who is angry and hoisting a whiskey jug. Look around long enough and things keep announcing themselves: a small picture of Andrew Jackson pasted here, a rendering of Faulkner painted there. On top of it all, in large gothic letters, Somerville has painted the words "The War Song of Dixie." It looks like the nightmare of an American studies major the night before final exams.

"To be honest, I'm not sure exactly where this painting is going," he says.

Somerville has been a professional artist ever since he dropped out of the San Francisco Art Institute in 1984. He's done residencies, sold his paintings, received small notices in art journals and newspapers. But the attention he has received has exploded in the past three years, the most prolific and successful period of his career: The Palace of the Legion of Honor owns one of his works, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has exhibited it, and a pair of his paintings will travel the country beginning next year as part of a Smithsonian-sponsored exhibition focused on the life of the Rev. King. So as a California artist on the rise, it's likely he'll hear more of the comments he's already received. That he's brilliant, that he's provocative -- and that a white man has no goddamn business painting Malcolm X wearing a Klan hood. Besides, what's he trying to say with that anyhow?

He's still working on the answer to that.


"I get a lot of people thinking that I'm black," Somerville says, sounding a bit bemused, and perhaps a bit proud as well. Catharine Clark, Somerville's agent, says it's the first thing people ask when they look at his paintings: Is he black? And once they find out he isn't, they ask the usual second question: Is he from the South? The general feeling being that, if he isn't one, he'd better be the other. "People have indicated that they're uncomfortable with the work," Clark says dryly.

Somerville tends to talk about his life in terms of how he fit in as a white person -- how he was a minority in a New Jersey high school that was mainly black and Latino, how he noticed blacks were often absent during his childhood, how white the San Francisco art world here is. His race-tinged perceptions are almost a reflex with him, the result of having to think about race at a very early age.

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