Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1963, Travis Somerville now lives and works in San Francisco, where he attended the San Francisco Art Institute in 1984. His large-scale oil paintings on paper mounted to canvas incorporate collage and present images of political and cultural icons associated with the history of the South, especially the legacy of the Civil War, which continues to be a leitmotif in his paintings and sculpture. He often includes images of Ku Klux Klan hoods, Confederate flags, and whiskey bottles, depicting the South with the suggestion of idiot drunkenness that quickly turns dangerous and menacing. The buildup of collaged material often incorporates items that evoke a sense of history, such as the inclusion of family photographs, accounting ledgers, and maps.
Somerville often evokes negative representations of the American South in his works as a way to re-envision the region and its culture—a tactic explored by several artists of his generation in the 1990s, exemplified by Kara Walker’s charged use of antebellum slave imagery in which she depicts slaves and slave owners as being complicit in the creation of a narrative for a heinous time in history that has become romanticized in different ways for both sides. It is a way of taking ownership of destructive imagery and reshaping it with a contemporary viewpoint. However, Somerville’s unique position is that he is “white.” His approach to the subject would not have been possible without a vocabulary built up in previous decades from civil rights, feminism, and multiculturalism. Ultimately, whiteness in the setting of his American South is not biology, but ideology.
Works in Our Collection
Two Headed Coin
Oil, oil stick, collage on blueprints, mounted on canvas, 2002
94 x 151 inches; 106 x 163 inches framed
Museum purchase with funds provided by the Contemporary Collectors Council, Jeffrey Dauber, Dan Dodt, Jess Ghannam, Becky Elkins, Nathan Larramendy Gallery, and Catharine Clark Gallery