It was a pleasure to visit the James Hockey and Foyer Galleries at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, to view a solo exhibition of new paintings by the Jamaican-British contemporary figurative artist Eugene Palmer.
Curated by Richard Hylton, the exhibition “Eugene Palmer: Didn’t it Rain: New Paintings” (27 January – 24 March 2018) was divided into the following three series, and also featured a short documentary film showing the artist at work in his studio discussing the development of his portfolio:
(1) “In Between Black and White” was displayed at the main entrance to the gallery and comprised ten close-up portraits of a young black woman. Each one showed different variations in skin tone, either painted in shades of grey, or in full colour. This process of producing nearly identical, repeated portraits, displayed as multiples, is one of the artist’s signature techniques. Collectively, the images encouraged viewers to contemplate issues of race, constructions of identity, the politics of beauty considered in relation to ethnicity and skin tone, and importantly also the complexities of ‘colourism’ – particularly as regards the problematic history of European artists creating stereotyped representations of black women within Western portraiture over many centuries.
(2) “Baby Shower,” shown in the foyer area of the University’s library, comprised 12 sketches painted in oil on paper, each representing attendees at a real-life gathering of family and friends to celebrate the forthcoming arrival of a new baby girl.
(3) “Didn’t it Rain” was displayed in the main gallery and showcased ten, larger than life-sized portraits of black women dressed in smart, monochrome skirt suits with matching hats. These works were arranged in pairs, with each figure painted against a neutral background of either light blue, green, yellow, pink, grey or white.
Thematically, all three series contributed towards foregrounding the black female subject as the primary protagonist for Eugene Palmer’s figurative work – a preference that is still extremely rare within the context of Western fine art portraiture. However, for Palmer, the centrality of blackness – and his decision to create positive representations of black women – could be interpreted as his deliberate attempt at challenging and ‘counter-imaging’ past histories of marginalisation, distortion and negative stereotyping of African-descended women within fine art and other forms of visual media.
Contextually, the title of the main exhibition – “Didn’t it Rain” – refers to the lyrics of a famous gospel song that was popularised in the 1950s and 1960s by African-American singers such as Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Eugene Palmer recollects hearing this song, and expressions of the phrase “Didn’t it Rain!,” on many occasions during his youth growing up in Jamaica, often recited by religious members of his community as a declarative statement about how their faith empowered them to face the effects of external forces that, at times, felt beyond their control but which could be endured and overcome because of a strong belief in the power of God.
Palmer’s decision to use this gospel lyric as the exhibition’s title also provides further insights into his motivation for creating the series. One important catalyst was the artist’s emotional response to seeing news stories about grieving mothers whose children had been found dead in highly suspicious circumstances, and whose deaths were believed to have occurred as a result of racial profiling, the use of violent ‘choke-hold’ techniques and other forms of lethal physical force meted out by the police, security officers and other law enforcement personnel. The sight of black women being forced to endure such pain and loss, and express their feelings of injustice in the public glare of the world’s news media provided a strong impetus to create works that visualised the resilience of black women in the face of the grossest indignities and abuses fought and resisted throughout history: from enslavement and post-emancipation Jim Crow racism, through to the struggles of the Civil Rights era and the present-day Black Lives Matter movement.
That the artist refers to the outfits being worn in this series as “Church suits” also reinforces the place of religious faith, spirituality and gospel music as part of the back stories and cultural contexts to these ten women’s imagined lives. Art historian Professor Eddie Chambers (based at the University of Texas at Austin, USA) has also commented on the importance of these religious and socio-cultural reference points within Palmer’s paintings, making the following important points of interpretation and analysis in his catalogue essay for the exhibition:
“Black people were never meant to survive slavery. That they did is due in no small part to the strength of their faith in the coming of a more just world, in the next life, if not in the earthly one. Gospel grew out of this faith and came to occupy a hugely important place in the lives and culture of New World Africans, and their descendants in the Americas, the Caribbean and Britain… [F]or many of us, Gospel music is, more simply put, as much a part of our cultural make up as anything else we might care to identify.
Notwithstanding the highly constructed images on which Palmer has based his paintings, there is much to uplift us in this work. Society has developed an abundance of problematic pathologies around Black women …[which] add to the day-to-day racism and sexism Black women battle. Against these dispiriting realities and challenges, Palmer presents us with images that are almost audacious in their refusal to concede to negativity.”
* Eddie Chambers – “Didn’t it Rain” (2018) catalogue essay, p. 21-23.
As a fellow contributor to the exhibition catalogue for “Didn’t it Rain,” I feel privileged to have been given an opportunity to meet with Eugene Palmer in his St Leonard’s studio during the summer of 2017, and to spend several hours observing and discussing his work in progress for this project. The resulting essay – titled: “A Masquerade of Melancholia: Ten Women in Sunday Mo[u]rning Finery,” by Dr Carol A. Dixon – discusses the compositional techniques and the subject matter of the above-mentioned ten portraits, then goes further to critique this polysemic and politically significant image-making within the context of the artist’s wider portfolio. Among the many incisive and astute comments Eugene Palmer shared in conversation with me was a determination for his portraiture to achieve pro-social as well as aesthetically pleasing outcomes. Reflecting on this aspiration whilst at work in his studio, Palmer remarked:
“I see my work as participating in a cultural discourse. It is no more or less than another voice, another point of view, and another position from which to engage with that ongoing discursive process to do with asking questions about art. At some level, you could argue that the work has a social dimension. You could also argue that the way meaning is derived from the work is similar to poetry, as opposed to essays… We are all aiming to make sense of the world as we find it, using different vernaculars of the language to make sense of it all.”
* Eugene Palmer – Interview with Carol A. Dixon, August 2017
It is my hope that this exhibition – and its accompanying 80-page illustrated catalogue “Eugene Palmer: Didn’t it Rain: New Paintings” (UCA, 2018) – will help to introduce many new audiences to the outstanding oeuvre of this accomplished figurative artists. Through his thought-provoking and beautifully rendered portraits of black female sitters and subjects Eugene Palmer is enabling more truthful, honest and nuanced representations of black womanhood to be foregrounded, and for such images to rightfully occupy a central space within Western art institutions and the canon of contemporary portraiture.
For further information about “Didn’t it Rain,” and details about purchasing a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact the curator, Dr Richard Hylton, c/o:
Address: James Hockey and Foyer Galleries, University for the Creative Arts, Falkner Road, Farnham, GU9 7DS, United Kingdom.
REFERENCES AND WEB LINKS
Hylton, R. (2018) Eugene Palmer: Didn’t it Rain: New Paintings. Exhibition catalogue featuring essays by Eddie Chambers and Dr Carol A. Dixon. Farnham: University for the Creative Arts. 80pp. 26x Full Colour Images. Price £12.00 GBP.
“Eugene Palmer: Didn’t it Rain: New Painting” – Exhibition website and artist’s biography: https://www.uca.ac.uk/galleries/gallery-events/eugene-palmer/
A selection of works from Eugene Palmer’s artistic portfolio shown on the Art UK website: https://artuk.org/discover/artists/palmer-eugene-b-1955