Southern Discomfort

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

"Sometimes I think over the idea of somebody saying, "What right do you have to comment on black history?'" Somerville says. "To which I'd say, "I'm not commenting on black history. I'm commenting on history. I'm commenting on my experience and my understanding of what has happened within these issues.'"

Paintings featuring words like "slave," "Negro," "cracker," and "Dixie," are bound to get an artist noticed, and while Somerville says nobody has walked up to him and told him his work is racist, he is bracing for it; complaints have come down to him secondhand, and some of his most provocative paintings haven't even been exhibited to the public. But museums are starting to bite, his paintings are going to be seen outside the generally empathetic art world, and he needs to be prepared, especially since he can't explain what's going on in some of his work. "Some of the earlier paintings used to be pretty haphazard, but now I can't really do it that way. Things really do need to relate more," he says. "Now I read up on things a lot more and I do a lot more research."

Of course, what Somerville is doing is art, which by definition is open to interpretation -- and the interpretations vary a great deal. "He's looking at identity through the lens of his own ... racism," says Clark. "You don't see many white males dealing with issues of identity, the way in which many of us believe we're not racist -- but we're making choices that are somehow by default racist." Clark is careful to say that she doesn't believe Somerville is a racist, though she's heard that accusation. At an art fair in Chicago last year, one attendee took serious issue with two of Somerville's works: one of a black Civil War soldier framed with the words "Slavery Days," another of a black plantation maid, Song of the Southbluebirds on her shoulders, with the exclamation "I'm living on 5th Avenue!" It's bad enough to mess around with black soldiers, the attendee said, but this maid -- this stereotype, this mammy -- was even worse.

According to Somerville, actress Whoopi Goldberg bought the maid painting. A spokesperson for Goldberg confirmed that she has purchased Somerville's work, but Goldberg was unavailable for comment.

Sandria Hu got more outraged comments when she exhibited Somerville's work last year. Hu, an art professor at the University of Houston -- Clear Lake, invited Somerville to come and speak about his paintings. "The reaction was mixed to say the least," Hu recalls. "But that's why I brought it down. People were taken aback by it, and they came up to me to say they were offended. It surprised me, because many of them were my students, who I thought were pretty liberal-minded."

Catharine Clark has found that the problem of people assuming Somerville is black becomes an issue when she meets collectors of African-American art. "I haven't ever wanted to mislead people," she says. "If I felt it's important to tell them, I do. But if they don't ask me, that's their own sort of internal stuff. There's an assumption that a portrait of a black man can only be done by a black man, which is almost more interesting. I stay out of it. I'm interested in having people uncover it for themselves."

Robert Flynn Johnson, a curator at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, didn't much care one way or another about Somerville's ethnicity when he came across one of the artist's paintings three years ago. He just liked what he saw. The painting that caught his eye was a massive portrait of Malcolm X, with the word "DIXIE" painted in large letters underneath. Last year, he finally arranged for the Legion of Honor to purchase the piece.

The painting -- Untitled (Dixie)-- is now part of the museum's collection of works on paper (it's not on display currently, however). For Johnson, it's a wise investment in an artist he sees growing in talent and reputation in the coming years.

He has yet to hear any complaints about the painting, but even if there were some he wouldn't necessarily mind -- this is, after all, art, and art is often designed to provoke. "Art's subjective," he says. "But when I know something is good, I've got an asbestos butt about people criticizing it."

Robin Clark doesn't think any of this should be taken too seriously, though. A San Francisco artist and longtime friend of Somerville's, Clark argues that Somerville doesn't have a message sorted out -- and more important, doesn't need one. "The Southern stuff is just an excuse to allow him to paint," Clark says. "A lot of people miss the point, because they get hung up on what it is.

"Travis and I really laugh at what he's doing and how he gets away with it. It's a sort of joke. You can't help but create an interesting painting with those interactions. There's not a lot of thought that goes into it. Just a lot of work."

Travis Somerville and his wife, Nancy Carol King, keep their kitsch in the kitchen. They live in a well-appointed flat in Nob Hill (the building owner is a friend who cuts them a deal on the rent), and the kitchen is stuffed with rows of vintage lunch boxes; a velvet Elvis painting hangs in one corner, above a green Formica table. That's where Travis is trying to explain how he decides what to paint -- and what not to.

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