A Great Cloud of Witnesses
San Francisco, CA: Catharine Clark Gallery announces the solo exhibition A Great Cloud of Witnesses by Travis Somerville, and the Media Room presentation of Question Bridge: Black Males, by the collaborative group Question Bridge: Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair. Work by Paul Rucker will be shown in the Viewing Room. The exhibition dates are March 2 through April 20, 2013. The reception will be held on Saturday, March 2, from 5 to 7 pm, preceded by a panel discussion from 3:30-5pm. A Great Cloud of Witnesses coincides with Travis Somerville’s solo exhibition Rebirth of a Nation: Travis Somerville’s 1963, curated by Diana Daniels, which runs March 3 through May 5, 2013 at the Crocker Art Museum with a reception on March 23 from 2:30-4:30pm.
For his 2013 solo exhibition at Catharine Clark Gallery, Travis Somerville continues his exploration of historical memory. How is it that certain stories reduced to sound bites and repeated ad nauseam become the collective truth? Through imagery that invites an investigation into the impact of iconographic legacy and the current state of human rights, Somerville critically examines the continued cultural implications of the Civil Rights movement. Bringing appropriated material from the past into dialogue with imagery from today’s “post racial” society, the artist makes complex montages that appose imagery from a bygone era with that of contemporary news stories on the subjects of immigration, child labor in Uzbekistan, and Arab Spring uprisings. The resulting works are confrontational and serve as a springboard for conversations about multiculturalism, truth, and the lasting power of images.
The exhibition title, A Great Cloud of Witnesses, is drawn from a biblical passage in Hebrews 12:1-2 that suggests the importance of remembering forgotten lives. Somerville reaches out to these “witnesses,” coloring their individual stories so often lost within the broader contexts of history and culture. Critically layering information, typography, and references from both antiquated and contemporary sources, the artist recontextualizes traditional history painting, focusing on specific, dramatic moments in human experience, while also conveying larger moral and intellectual messages. In The Ballad of George Stinney, Somerville tells the story of George Stinney, who was executed in 1944 at the age of 14. Sentenced to death by electric chair, and still a mere child, Stinney had to be propped up by his bible to securely fit within the chair. Somerville reflects on this historic injustice: a set of found schoolchildren chairs are suspended in the air, tightly wound with rope, a bible tucked in its coils. Similarly, the tapestry Hamma Pahtada confronts the issues of forced cotton picking and child labor in Uzbekistan, formerly the largest supplier to United States clothing manufacturers. The piece conjoins an American flag with a 1940s cotton picker’s bag, which is adorned with Uzbekistan flag iconography and an individual Uzbekistani child laborer’s portrait. The title, a phrase that plasters the empty schools, businesses, and institutions in Uzbekistan, loosely translates to “everybody’s gone cotton picking.” Paying homage to Stinney’s tragic tale, as well as nameless laborers, Somerville challenges the social frameworks of memory and history, telling stories often neglected. Somerville asserts that racism is a multicultural issue in our global community and that though it has gone beyond “whiteness,” inequality has yet to be overcome.
Raised in the South during the 1960s in a white, liberal household, Somerville has a personal experience with the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the era. Briefly studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art, he settled in San Francisco and attended the San Francisco Art Institute. Somerville’s work has been included in numerous museum exhibitions: the University of Georgia, de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University, Florida A&M University, the Laguna Art Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, San Francisco Arts Commission, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others. Somerville’s work was recently exhibited in Newtopia: The State of Human Rights, an international show of 70 contemporary artists whose work is dedicated to an investigation on the state of human rights. The exhibition was held at various prominent cultural institutions in Mechelen, Belgium, and was curated by Katerina Gregos. Somerville has exhibited with Catharine Clark Gallery since 1996.