“Figuring History,” - a powerful new exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum- insists on representation for the underrepresented. “Figuring History” features the cross-generational work of three artists—Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas—whose paintings highlight the ways in which people of color have been traditionally left out of art and history. This exhibition changes the subject of the rich history of painting, and tells the stories of people of color from their own perspectives. This, combined with the exuberance of each artist’s work, makes this exhibition a must-see.
The exhibit begins with the paintings of Robert Colescott (1925-2009), who invokes a dream-like quality through warped figures that meld into each other in large mural-like paintings where you don’t quite know where to look. His work highlights people of color in history who many have never heard of, often juxtaposing these little known but important figures with less noble caricatures of black people. One of the first paintings in the exhibition, “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Matthew Henson and the Quest for the North Pole,” depicts Matthew Henson, a black man who played a major role in the first team of explorers who reached the North Pole in 1906. This painting, and others in the series, highlight the lack of knowledge about the vital role people of color have played in history, and points out how detrimental that is to today's youth of color who don’t see themselves represented positively in history or popular culture.
Souvenir I, 1997, by Kerry James Marshall
The next featured artist is Chicagoan Kerry James Marshall, whose paintings are vibrant, stunningly realistic, and strategically highlighted in glitter. His “Souvenir” series honor black people who died during the Civil Rights Era. Each depicts the living rooms of Marshall’s relatives, and includes an angel looking out, beseeching viewers to remember the deceased represented in the paintings. What’s most notable about Marshall’s series is their glitter, which not only makes for interesting, textured paintings, but also serves as a powerful metaphor. The glitter immediately draws your eye, visually forcing you to pay attention and further highlighting the need for increased representation of marginalized people in art.
Tamika sur une chaise longue avec Monet, 2012, by Mickalene Thomas
The final artist of the exhibition is New York-based Mickalene Thomas, whose work is just as glittery but much bolder in both texture and color palette than Marshall’s. Her art melds collage, painting, and photography to create astonishing pieces that represent women of color, many of them LGBT. Each of her pieces has a distinct 70s vibe, and that modish aesthetic is accentuated by the numerous rhinestones attached to most of her paintings.
The TeenTix Press Corps in the final gallery by Mickalene Thomas at Figuring History
Thomas’ most notable work, however, isn’t a painting at all, but a living room installation designed by the artist herself, placed in front of her largest work in the exhibit’s final gallery. It contains chairs and cushions made of a hybrid of different fabrics, composite flooring, potted plants, and a collection of books about women of color. This communal space feels like home, and patrons of the museum are invited to linger and discuss the art they’ve seen.
This space reminds us of the point of art like that presented in “Figuring History”— to ask big, philosophical questions, and evoke community conversations about important social issues.
The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.
This review was written as part of the Adventures in Contemporary American Culture workshop which was produced in partnership with On the Boards. It was edited by art critic Gayle Clemans, and TeenTix Press Corps Manager Mariko Nagashima.