Southern Discomfort

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

So about three years ago, he started tinkering with the idea of painting something more biographical. He'd begin by exploring the year he was born: 1963, the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Painting and sketching Kennedy's head over and over, he kept searching for something to do with it, trying to make it mean something. And then one day -- he's not certain why -- he thought to paint the letters CSA underneath. CSA: Confederate States of America. It didn't make sense, exactly -- Kennedy wasn't a Southerner, though he supported the civil rights movement, but what did the CSA have to do with Kennedy, except to say that perhaps there was a legacy there, some message of Mason-Dixon divisions that ...

The mind boggled. You could, if you wanted, call it art.

"I thought, "Well, I'm just gonna do it and see what evolves from that,'" says Somerville.

He kept painting; Clarkesville kept visiting Travis Somerville's Hunters Point studio. Abraham Lincoln arrived wearing a Klan hood. Malcolm X too. Gen. Sherman marched in. So did Gen. Robert E. Lee. Robert F. Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and Jimmy Swaggart came to speak. Animals bounced in: blue jays and foxes and rabbits and bears from Song of the South, the 1946 Disney film that Somerville loved as a child, but which the studio now effectively disowns.

And he's still trying to figure out what he's doing. Boy in the Hood, a 2000 painting that features Malcolm X in sunglasses and a white Klan hood, was a particularly difficult one for him to work out. "I was thinking of extremes," he says, "how they're both very extreme symbols. And whether you agree with it or not, there's two sides to every story. The Klan has its view, and I totally disagree with it, but it's a freedom-of-speech thing too. People disagree with Malcolm X, but there's a freedom-of-speech thing there too." But he explains that figuring out the message of a painting is something that comes during the process of painting -- or even long after, or never.

That's not to say he was ignorant of the effect the imagery would have. "It took me awhile to do that [painting]. I hadn't shown it to anybody, and [gallery owner Catharine] Clark brought some people by. They came in, saw it, and bought it. I thought, "Wow.' It made me think that my fears were not valid."

Robert Smith, a 38-year-old San Francisco art collector, purchased Boy in the Hoodlast year. He'd bought another Malcolm X-themed work, A Lost Vision, in late 1999 -- that one featured the incendiary civil rights activist with his eyes blacked out, a Dixie flag pasted to his forehead. "They're both really strong works," he says. "They assault you immediately. I think the whole issue of cultural memory is called into question [in the paintings] -- what was valid during the civil rights movement. Those figureheads take on different meaning today when we look back on that time." Smith says he tends to look for works that have a visceral impact on him when he sees them, so he feels that Somerville's work is some of the best in his collection. "I think he's right on the cutting edge of what's happening in the Bay Area," he says.

This January, an art exhibition called "In the Spirit of Martin" will begin traveling the country, starting in Detroit. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the exhibit includes about 150 works by both well-known artists like Gordon Parks, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol -- and obscure artists like Travis Somerville, whose appearance in the exhibit was pretty much an accident.

About three years ago, Gary Chassman, an independent art exhibit producer, came to San Francisco from his native Vermont to visit his children. He'd just started tinkering with the idea of a Martin Luther King- themed exhibit, which the Smithsonian had given its blessing to, when he walked into Catharine Clark's downtown gallery and saw The Only Begotten Son. The painting is a massive portrait -- about 8 by 9 feet -- of the Rev. King below a large Nike swoosh, painted on architectural drawings.

Chassman was struck by the painting and immediately wanted it for the exhibit. Finding Travis Somerville wasn't quite so crucial. "I wasn't so interested in who [Somerville] was as much as I was interested in the painting itself," he recalls. "When I walked into the gallery and saw this work, I was thrilled to find it. It was the kind of work I was looking for. It was clearly inspired by the life and legacy and the ideals to which Dr. King consecrated his life. I thought it was a vivid demonstration that King's dominion has continued to grow."

Clint Willour, curator of the Galveston (Texas) Arts Center, was confused when he was first introduced to Somerville's work last year. He'd been asked to write a short commentary for an exhibit, but found himself bothered by the content. "There's a large group of [black] artists -- Carol Walker, Michael Ray Charles, David McGee -- who address being the "other,' and they take a great deal of flak for it because they question stereotypes," he says. "But when you're the other and you parody yourself you're less apt to get criticism. But [in Somerville's case] one would wonder why he's doing it. What gives him license to assume he can work with those images?"

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