I recently read and article in Artworks magazine about American painter, Richard Mayhew. He is a landscape painter who arose out of the Monet tradition to pave the way for a new "Improvisational" Landscape. Though I'm not a Monet fan or that particular genre of art, I recognize the powerful place it holds in art history. It was revolutionary and evolutionary. Mayhew's work takes impressionistic landscape and travels in his own direction. He is described in the article as critical of other African-American artists who use Afrocentric imagery in their work. Since the article is not available for online viewing I'll have to quote the section myself.
"...he feels strongly that the emotionally-charged iconography of Aunt Jemina and slave images only serve to perpetuate racial stereotypes." An example noted in the article was the work of Kara Walker.
"Even today, he takes pride in the fact that an uninformed viewer of his work would not be able to discern his race."
These statements struck me at the time of my reading and I've been mulling them over for a few days. I don't know if the example of Kara Walker was provided by Richard Mayhew or by the author, Sheryl Nonnenberg. I understand the desire of an artist to have their work stand in isolation, to be independent of the artist. In part, I think that may be what Mayhew's intent was in his statement. I also understand that he rose in the art world during a time when his race would have been seen as negative. The problem comes in that when the race of the artist is not known, it is assumed to be white. So, in fact, art is not devoid of race it simply falls to the default of Euro-centrist white.
I had some sadness for Mayhew, who after many years of needing to conceal his race to get his work shown, began to embrace the ideal that an expression of race was negative. I object to the idea that artists of color should hide their race, that they are somehow reinforcing negative stereotypes by revealing race within their work. Art can be the best venue to expose stereotypes about race, to express the anger behind racist images and the harm they cause. A piece of art can still stand independent of the artist while containing visible non-white images. The viewer might make assumptions about the artist's race, but these assumptions about race, gender, nationality, and age occur anyway. The viewer experience is what brings power to art. We all respond differently and we all have different tastes. The desire to hide race within artistic context is the desire to present a single story of art. We need more than one story of art.
©2009 Cindy K. Shaw All rights reserved.