Travis Somerville works in loaded images. For some artists, that would be a criticism, but for Atlanta native and longtime San Franciscan Somerville, it’s a compliment – and an opportunity.
Somerville will open a new show of collages, paintings and other pieces that reflect his deep-seated love of ephemera at downtown’s beta pictoris gallery on Friday, April 4, returning to Birmingham for the first time since his involvement in last year’s pulp exhibition. The show, entitled American Rhetoric, walks a thrilling line between provocation and dialogue as Somerville guides the audience into a world of issues whose historical roots are hardly as distant as we might like to imagine.
The right wall of the gallery features Somerville’s superlative talent for collage, as Harper’s Weekly etchings from the Civil War are ripped into a contemporary context with the addition of consumerist signifiers like Colonel Sanders and Texaco stations alongside such loaded images as Klan uniforms and Confederate flags.
“Some people have said, ‘How can you paint on top of these things?’ To me, it enhances what they are,” Somerville said. “It’s creating a new history to them, a new background, it makes them contemporary. I mean, that’s 150 years ago, but it’s stuff we’re still dealing with today. … To do something with them brings them into a contemporary dialogue.”
While it’s hard to describe American Rhetoric in a way that doesn’t make it feel laden with grim history, Somerville’s art is also deeply playful in a way that reveals his punk rock sensibility, one that shatters the sense of austere aloofness so common to fine art galleries. “I feel like [humor] opens the door for people, especially if you’re uncomfortable with it,” Somerville said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, this is horrible.’”
At the same time, Somerville respects and admires the craft of the classic advertising graphics and the beauty of the Harper’s Weekly etchings – “The original etching is just as important as the collage elements, to me,” Somerville said – while also admitting to a little nostalgia of his own for an age of gas station attendants and Colonel Sanders. There’s a sense of historical preservation in Somerville’s work that grounds the playfulness.
That sense of fun, however, is critical to Somerville’s collages. “It wasn’t a conscious thing where I looked at [the etching] and decided, ‘Oh, this is where this has to go,’” Somerville said. “It’s a very playful process. With painting or drawing, you make that commitment when you start. Doing these collages really gave me the freedom to play around compositionally a lot more.”
It’s also representative of Somerville’s pack-rat nature; it’s no surprise that when he’s got a show in Birmingham, he’s sure to pay a visit to What’s On Second. “It’s very visceral, the attraction to what I want,” Somerville said. “If I want [a piece of ephemera], I want it immediately. I may not know what to do with it for five years, but I’ll know I want it.”
The most striking confluence of Somerville’s fascination with the historical process, his love of resonant images and obsession with ephemera lays on the opposite side of the gallery, where the artist has hung up enormous objects that look like giant smocks with faces from WPA slave narratives drawn on them. When you realize that they’re not smocks at all, but rather cotton sacks, they strike an entirely different chord, even though the sacks are from the 1950s and were likely used by white pickers.
The serendipity in the collages, and the evidence of Somerville’s hand in all his work – even old cotton sacks he tracked down online – also betrays how personal American Rhetoric is for him. Speaking of his Southern roots, Somerville said, “I’m removed in the sense that I’m not geographically here anymore, but you still have these internal feelings you struggle with. Doing these pieces helps me struggle with those issues, helps me work them out. And the humor comes out doing that. … It’s almost cathartic, in a way.”
One can only hope that as Somerville dredges up difficult issues which test the boundaries of politesse, his Birmingham audience will be willing to participate in that same catharsis.
beta pictoris gallery is located at 2411 2nd Ave. N. The opening reception for American Rhetoric will take place on Friday, April 4 from 6-9 p.m.