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Racial issues to fore in Sutton exhibition

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Art needs not to be beautiful, but great art should be meaningful.

Art can be disturbing, maybe even enraging. If it does disturb, pay attention - something important may be going on. Ask, what is it with this particular piece that gets to me?

In the history of art, there are numerous examples that many would consider disturbing. I think of Goya’s The Third of May 1808.

During the French occupation of Spain, Spanish patriots attacked a contingent of French troops. In reprisal, the French randomly arrested a number of innocent Spaniards, and executed them.

Goya’s painting depicts this event with charged emotions. The innocent victims are seen as open-faced; the central figure, dressed in white with arms spread wide, suggests crucifixion and innocence.

The French firing squad, on the other hand, is seen as a dark force, their faces hidden within their black helmets, their rifles pointing directly towards the Spanish.

The visual rhythms established by the helmets are almost audible, implying the staccato of gunfire.

Goya’s The Third of May 1808 is, in my estimation, one of the most powerful paintings in western art.

Another is Guernica, by Picasso. Like Goya, it is an expression of rage and horror.

During the Spanish Civil War, on April 26, 1937, the Basque town of Guernica was bombed on market day at the behest of General Franco.

The bombing was carried out by the German Luftwaffe and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria. Countless civilians were killed or injured.

Like Goya’s painting, Picasso’s Guernica is a cry from the heart against the evilness and futility of war.

Bermuda’s art community is noted for playing it safe, not only in what our artists produce, but also in the taste of our buying public. We like our art to be comfortable.

In contrast, Richard Sutton’s paintings, now on exhibit at Gallery One Seventeen, are depictions of “hot button” racial issues.

His paintings, like the above-mentioned by Goya and Picasso, are also cries from the heart; they confront and they disturb.

Richard Sutton’s paintings are depictions not only of racism, but also gang culture which, doubtless, is an extension of our racial divisions.

Sutton, who spent his early years in the Caribbean, moved with his parents to the US at the age of 12.

From what he tells me, he was hardly aware of racial matters while living in the Caribbean, but with his move to the US, he was confronted by the racism that infects American society.

His exhibit, which is entitled Afraid of the Dark, consists of 25 paintings, the centrepiece being La Pieta.

This painting generated much conversation while on show in the Charman Prize exhibition and continues to be a source of much debate.

La Pieta depicts a mourning family, obviously in the aftermath of a gang slaying. The protagonists are the dead son and the mother.

They are placed at the centre of the composition, the deceased arching over his mother’s lap, his right arm extending across the floor, suggesting the weightiness of death.

The mother’s expression is that of anguish. The father, standing to the right, is obviously distraught. To the left is a sibling who is slumped on the floor with face largely hidden behind dreadlocks, in an attitude of sorrow. The painting seems a stage setting.

The black background suggests the infinite, intimating possibly the unknown.

Another painting, Spark of a Revolution, is contentious in that it deals with issues of regimentation and faulty perceptions.

In it, a group of blacks, stripped of clothing apart from conical dunce caps, appear to be in the process of being herded into a line-up.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the white community often see blacks as intellectually inferior.

Certainly, the instruments used to determine intelligence seem to indicate this, but they fail to take into account the less than optimal social and economic environment that many blacks are forced to inhabit that corrupt the test results.

Those who have developed in a more affluent, educated environment do as well on IQ tests as everybody else.

One of Sutton’s favourite paintings in the show is titled Platform. The subject is a platform in a New York subway station.

I understand that Sutton was influenced in this painting by the American painter Edward Hopper, but the impact of other artists is also evident, especially the French painter Jacque Louis David and the contemporary American artist Kara Walker.

The framework of the composition is that of Hopper; the black silhouettes are reminiscent of Kara Walker. The rearing horse and rider were taken from David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

Sutton stands on the shoulders of old master painters, especially the Italian baroque artist Caravaggio and the Dutch masters of the 17th century. I refer to their use of chiaroscuro, meaning the extreme contrasts of light and dark.

This is also characteristic of Sutton’s paintings. Sutton also claims to have been influenced by the Ashcan School (1891-1918), especially their colour palette.

He studied for his undergraduate degree at Andrews University and received his graduate degree in art from Pratt Institute.

He singled out one professor as being especially important in his artistic development: the award-winning portrait artist Harry Ahn.

What I find so compelling about Sutton’s exhibition is that he supports his contentious subject matter with impressive artistic skill.

It’s all very well having deep feelings about any subject, but if you cannot articulate them, they go nowhere.

Sutton’s paintings, to the contrary, are not only worth seeing but the exhibition is a ‘must-see show’.

The Richard Sutton exhibition continues through March 9 at Gallery One Seventeen

Marked for Danger by Richard Sutton (Photograph supplied)
La Pieta by Richard Sutton (Photograph supplied)
For My Family by Richard Sutton (Photograph supplied)
Sanctuary by Richard Sutton (Photograph supplied)
The Platform by Richard Sutton (Photograph supplied)