Painter prompts viewers to consider race relations in American society

The Lockhart Gallery continues to enrich the Geneseo community with access to its diverse art exhibitions as it showcases famed historian-turned-artist Nell Painter’s “Eye Speak” collection of digitalized collage artwork. Students and residents from Geneseo, the Greater Rochester Area and beyond have the ability to view this free public exhibition of artwork from an artist with deep political and cultural significance. Painter is an American historian with various publications centered around southern history of the 19th century. Her works include The History of White People, Creating Black Americans and Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. As a young girl, Painter was involved in the second wave of the Great Migration when her family moved from Houston to Oakland, California. This was a period of time when millions of African Americans moved from the south to the urbanized and industrialized centers of the north.

Painter has long been known as a vocal critic on the status of American society. Her experiences are reflected through her writing, which showcases a profound awareness of American historical and political truths.

Nonetheless, Painter said, “My art conveys visual sense, but visual sense not only” and “using found images and digital manipulation, I reconfigure the past and revision myself through self-portraits. My work, therefore, carries meaning that isn’t stable, for the viewer makes meaning as well as the artist.”

The exhibition is separated into mini-collections, each with its own central theme. One mini-collection is comprised of four black-rimmed square frames. The first three are titled “He Saw Her” and contain collages with grey, pink and orange color schemes. The last piece is entitled “He Did Not See Her” and consists of a mixture of all three previous color stories. The meaning is vague and unclear—a common feature of most of the artwork in the gallery. As Painter said, the artwork carries meaning that “isn’t stable.”

A similar concept is used in the “Venus + Serena” series, for which she uses hand-colored linoleum prints. Much of the work is just as abstract, employing the use of various methods of creation. “Self-Portrait 16” is an acrylic collage on paper, but other pieces like “Motherwell in the Adirondacks 4” and “Motherwell in Dedham 6” are digitalized collages.

Additional works stray from the collage format entirely, such as Painter’s “Self-Portrait 3,” where she shows herself entirely and without fragmentation by utilizing acrylic on paper. Pieces such as this provide a more concrete and stable representation amongst the diverse collection of colorful and visually stimulating artwork. Included in the exhibition is a book that lies in a glass case, which is turned to a page where Painter highlighted “whatever she saw go on in that barn.”

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved served as creative inspiration for Painter, who said that the novel “left me devastated by the sheer cruelty of slavery and the way it distorted humanity, even though as a historian I was well acquainted with the institution’s awfulness.” Painter celebrates Morrison’s “visual imagination” and “her insistence on the importance of color,” explaining that her own pieces in grisaille—painting only in shades of grey—are used to represent the meaning of Morrison’s “investment in color.”

Painter’s unique artistic outlook and her insight on American history in relation to slavery and the current status of our society shines through her vibrant and abstract “Eye Speak” collection. Perhaps the most enlightening part of the exhibition, however, is Painter’s view of her own work: “After a life of historical truth and political engagement with American society, my artwork represents freedom.”