“We made portraits of ourselves when we had no idea who we were. We tried to find God in landscapes that we were destroying as fast as we could paint them. We painted Indians as fast as we could kill them, and during the greatest technological jump in history, we painted ourselves as a bunch of fiddling rustics.”
‘We?’ In this quote from the prologue of Emile de Antonio’s seminal film, Painters Painting, Philip Leider is talking of American painters. Specifically of white American painters, mostly of recent European extraction. (Painters Painting 1973) He is quickly followed by Thomas Hess’ assertion that, “During the war, airplane loads of Surrealists and famous European artists came to New York. There were people of every variety. They came to New York and established themselves as part of the New York art world.” Spoken at a time when white European men thought that white, European men counted as people of every variety. They defined a new American painting through the language of abstraction. This was done largely through an American centering of the self, the gesture, freedom, expression, with a grandiose physicality and held together by an un-acknowledged pilfering of non-western art histories (from 2000-year-old Chinese painting’s view of the brush mark as a document of a transferal of energy to the all-over quality of Australian Aboriginal painting and the non-representational form). Reconfigured on canvas in Manhattan these ‘primitive’ modes of making were elevated to high art and the definition of the avant-garde.
Black painters are now in the process of defining subjects and taking positions in contemporary painting. Twenty years ago I hosted the first solo exhibition by black British painter, Hurvin Anderson, at my gallery in London. His show was titled, ‘The Lime’. Liming is a Trinidadian expression, which means relaxing. His paintings were made during a residency in Trinidad. Born in Birmingham, Uk, of Jamaican parents, Anderson felt an unexpected alienation in Trinidad. The subjects of his paintings, beaches, tennis courts, barber shops were portrayed as from a distance. They were seen through barriers of trees, gates or fences. The paintings, based on his own photographs and first hand experience placed him as a painter and subsequently us as viewers at a distance. We could observe but not partake.
In his new paintings Marcus Brutus takes similar subjects, beaches, tennis, barber shops but positions the viewer at the centre of the action. The subjects don’t come from Brutus’ personal experience or his own photographs. They are images from black cultural and social history. The paintings riff on Western art history, particularly Impressionist portrayals of the new 19th century leisure class – think Caillebotte’s Parisian woman with an umbrella, Manet’s guitar player, Monet’s boating scenes, Degas’ horse racing and ballet scenes.
– David Risley
Photos by Carl Henrik Tillberg. © the artist. Courtesy of Carl Kostyál, London | Stockholm