One of the gifts of living in a large city is the presence of well-endowed cultural institutions. Sitting next to our theater companies, the opera house, and the symphony–perhaps a little higher–is the Seattle Art Museum. True to its elevated position among the city’s institutions, SAM has hosted a number of admirable exhibits in the last few years but its latest, Figuring History, is something special. Returning from the third floor, where you will find the exhibit, I stopped on the second to take a look at the permanent collections, particularly the Minimalist paintings. These paintings could not be more different in their philosophy–antithetical, even–than the works upstairs.
The Figuring History exhibit (showing until May 13th) follows the popular Kerry James Marshall retrospective exhibited in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles in 2016 and 2017. This exhibit places Kerry James Marshall next to two other Black American painters, Robert Colescott and Mickalene Thomas, whose work, to hastily sum it up, reimagines the canon of Western painting as if it were not dominated by White men portraying White subjects. Instead, by placing Black people or Black places in familiar poses or settings from western painting, rich but marginalized histories are elevated, exceed even the originals they reference and, in the process, give the old works new juice just by association. As Marshall puts it in a videotaped monologue that plays on loop at the museum,
“I never think of the paintings I make as self-expression. I think of them exclusively as platforms for an idea since the idea of representation is really interesting to me. I make a lot of work that’s about that idea. And then I’m also interested in how you reference culture and history in pictures.”