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Exhibition explores the work of three American artists redefining contemporary history painting
Mickalene Thomas, Monet's salle à manger jaune, 2012. Rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel, 108 x 144 x 2 in., Brooklyn Museum, A. Augustus Healy Fund, 2012.73a-b, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, © Mickalene Thomas.

SEATTLE, WA.- The Seattle Art Museum presents Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas (February 15–May 13, 2018), a new exhibition organized by SAM featuring three leading American artists from three generations whose work redefines history painting in a contemporary context. The large-scale paintings on view are distinctive in style, subject matter, and in the historic moments they reference, but collectively they critique and redefine mainstream narratives of history and representation. In their portrayals, these artists provide testimony centered on Black experience.

The genre of history painting occupies a privileged place in the history of European art. Beginning in the Renaissance with representations of mythological, religious, and literary themes, the most famous artists of the time were commissioned to commemorate pivotal historical events that defined national identities. These large-scale works, done in the grand style, were displayed in ceremonial venues and celebrated the ruling class. Colescott, Marshall, and Thomas all lay claim to the history of the genre, but with a poignant retelling of American history from a Black perspective, giving prominence to histories and individuals that have been erased or suppressed.

The exhibition features loans from several institutions and collections, as well as works from SAM’s collection, including the recently acquired Les Demoiselles d'Alabama: Vestidas (1985) by Colescott. In addition, Mickalene Thomas plans to make new works specifically for the exhibition.

“We are thrilled to bring together the extraordinary work of Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas at the Seattle Art Museum,” says Kimerly Rorschach, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO. “The urgent themes of Figuring History reflect the museum’s mission to be a place where exciting and challenging questions—even of our own institution—can be asked.”

“Figuring History opens a door into a labyrinth of questions,” says Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. “Who writes history, who is present in its accounts—but also how do we square, reassess, and go forth with the artistic, social, and political histories that we have all inherited? These artists and their work speak about the past as much as the present.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Seattle Art Museum will publish a full-color exhibition catalogue, also titled Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas. It will feature an introduction by Catharina Manchanda, essays by art historians Lowery Stokes Sims and Jacqueline Francis, and interviews with Kerry James Marshall and Mickalene Thomas.

Born in Oakland, California, Robert Colescott witnessed the Great Depression in his early years and later served in the Army during World War II. Several years of studies and teachings in France and Egypt following the war gave him an outside perspective and critical edge on the racial conflicts in the United States. The cartoon-like aesthetic of his earlier works take to task celebrated milestones in the history of painting from Van Eyck to Picasso. A decade later, he applies his boldly expressive style to stories that weave the fate of ordinary individuals into the fabric of stories weighed down by the colonial past. He poses his subjects as observers, agents, and narrators of an incomplete history, in need of revision.

Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama; he and his family moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1963, a formative time and place for the artist, who now lives and works in Chicago. Marshall’s commanding portraits and tableaux combine familiar representational forms, such as the portrait of the artist or the academic life-drawing class, with political references that frame deeply probing historical narratives.

Mickalene Thomas’ monumental portraits and nudes of women recall the odalisques and muses familiar from a long line of European art history. Her figures do not lend themselves to passive consumption but are powerful agents who confront us. Material culture and the aesthetics of ornamentation play a central role in her work as she inflects and reimagines Matisse’s arabesques and quasi-cubist spaces through the aesthetics of contemporary fashion and style. The power dynamics shift profoundly as Thomas negotiates gender and sexuality through a contemporary female gaze.

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