New Images for an Old Struggle: Jacob Lawrence at Seattle Art Museum

This sweeping painting elongates the limbs of its subjects' raised fists, so they appear mountainous, triangular, and dynamic. The bottom and middle of the frame is crowded with individuals of this form, creating the sensation that a group is on the verge of riot. In the top left, a man in black garb leans forward, stretching his body across the top of the piece, pointing his finger. Deep, dark colors, including shades of brown, black, red, green, and one sharp flash of blue, dominate this piece.
Jacob Lawrence, . . . is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? —Patrick Henry, 1775, Panel 1, 1955. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross, © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Eleven electrified figures crowd the picture plane of Jacob Lawrence’s Panel 1 (1955), a scene lit by a brick-red glow that implies a night illuminated by fire. The crowd’s outstretched arms punch fists skyward in solidarity and fury, and the calm suggested by the hues of their garments—golden browns, flat grays, moss greens, and sea blues—is belied by Lawrence’s depiction of the fabric’s folds as a series of razor-sharp isosceles triangles. The figure that towers over the others stabs an index finger horizontally into the darkness: Onward. Lawrence frequently wrote on the backs of his paintings, and Panel 1 is inscribed with a quote from Patrick Henry’s 1775 speech in Richmond: “…is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” No, the painting answers. Liberty, or death.

The American Struggle reunites the panels of Lawrence’s series Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56 for the first time in sixty years, and the Seattle Art Museum (the only West Coast site in this touring exhibition) is a fitting venue: Lawrence and his wife, painter Gwendolyn Knight, moved to Seattle in 1970 when Lawrence was appointed to the School of Art at the University of Washington, where he served as a professor until 1980, and then as Emeritus until his death in 2000. Given the upheavals of this last year, the renewed vitality of social justice movements, and the ongoing national and global conversations about power and equity, it feels obvious to say that the exhibition, which depicts scenes from American history that center Black people, Indigenous people, and women, is here at the right time and in the perfect place.

The bayonettes of rifles protrude from under soldiers' rain jackets like jagged trees, and the ships that hold the soldiers climb mountains of waves, in this sharp-edged and provocative painting.
Jacob Lawrence, We crossed the River at McKonkey’s Ferry 9 miles above Trenton . . . the night was excessively severe . . . which the men bore without the least murmur . . . —Tench Tilghman, 27 December 1776, 1954. Egg tempera on hardboard. 12 × 16 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Two oxen, painted using swift and hard brustrokes, struggle to pull an old wagon through shallow blue water. Their noses drip from grunting. Blood oozes from wood panels.
Jacob Lawrence, Old America seems to be breaking up and moving Westward . . .—an English immigrant, 1817, Panel 30, 1956. Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University, gift of Dr. Herbert Kayden and family in memory of Dr. Gabrielle H. Reem, 2013.96, © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Each egg-tempera-on-hardboard panel is a modernist revelation, a galvanizing melee of flat planes that illustrate various figures, usually massed together as though staged for the camera. Lawrence’s paintings often have art-historical predecessors: Panel 10 (1954) reimagines Emanuel Leutze’s stoic, heroic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) as bone-cold soldiers huddled in boats that heave nauseatingly among icy December waves; Panel 15 (1955) depicts the signers of the Declaration of Independence not as John Trumbull famously did in his 1826 Declaration of Independence—fragrant with decorum and rectitude—but in a savage tangle of sweaty, quarrelsome men pontificating to each other until their knees buckle with exhaustion. The wall text notes that this was the group that “agreed that Black people would be counted for the census but not given freedom, citizenship, or the right to vote.” Lawrence equates their lack of compassion with death, portraying them with eyes shut and mouths turned down in the ghoulish rictus of corpses.

The emotional tenor of Lawrence’s characters imbues them with more intensity than if they had been painted in a photorealistic manner. Part of that richness can be chalked up to the artist’s manner of turning historical context into incisive detail (the perspiring signers of the Declaration worked for months in the humid misery of a Philadelphia summer). These bodies are fallible, infused with palpable energy that underscores the messy, flatulent human-ness of history. Whereas most paintings found in history textbooks depict events as a set of valorized and sanitized fait accompli, the vibrantly chaotic moments that Lawrence reconstructs here hold within them their own contingencies—a sense that things could have easily turned out another way. Panel 18 (1956) regards a meeting between two rifle-carrying settlers, their Lemhi Shoshone translator Sacajawea, and two Indigenous chiefs in feathered headdresses. Sacajawea appears caught in mid-gasp while her interlocutor gazes at her tenderly (the Shoshone chief who faces her turned out to be her long-lost brother Cameahwait). However, the settlers standing behind her glower coldly, while the other chief eyes them unflinchingly. Amid the joy of sibling reunion—rendered in celebratory reds, yellows, and blues—Sacajawea’s fraying braid hints at the horrors yet to come for her people.

The feathered and furred headdresses of these native peoples stretch and yawn upwards and sideways. Brilliant, blood reds, earthen browns, and shadow blacks dominate this oblong depiction of the meeting of five peoples.
Jacob Lawrence, In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit . . .— Jefferson to Lewis & Clark, 1803, Panel 18, 1956. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross, © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
A patterned chair is placed before a ladder, wrapped in photographs and propped against a portion of wall and floor that is also covered in photos. Above the ladder hangs a painting of a man leaning on his elbow, holding a cup of coffee.
Derrick Adams, Jacob’s Ladder, 2019. Mixed media installation. Courtesy of the artist, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, and the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation; Commissioned by the Peabody Essex Museum, 2019, ©2020 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo: Kathy Tarantola.

Lawrence maintains his impassioned argument for re-envisioning history even when there are no human figures in the image. Drooling oxen drag two prairie schooners across the nation in Panel 30 (1956). So large they block the rest of the terrain from view, the wagons’ bonnets are crisp and white, but crimson blood leaks from the margin of one, and the animals are so fatigued that their long horns knock into each other and into their yoke. The warped perspective in Panel 30 makes these vehicles of Manifest Destiny into a dream—the kind that slides away from the dreamer into the territory of nightmare. But on the panel’s back, Lawrence has inscribed a caption from an 1817 pamphlet by an Illinois abolitionist: “Old America seems to be breaking up and moving Westward…”

Old America is breaking up, and the tremors and disorder that accompany revolution remind us to look to our past for inspiration. The American Struggle also includes works by contemporary artists, and among these an installation by Derrick Adams, Jacob’s Ladder (2019), stands out. The title alludes to the Biblical bridge between earth and heaven—what we have now and what we aspire to. A section of floor and wall are pasted with photographs of Lawrence, alone and with other people—his personal history. Amidst this archive a faded armchair faces a ladder (also pasted with photos) that leans against the wall; there’s a vintage record player tucked into the space beneath the ladder, and a framed portrait of Lawrence hung above its topmost rung. Adams has altered a Sweet Honey and the Rock album so that the vinyl run-out area (the small groove between the final track and the label) loops and replays its warm-toned crackle. Listening to this loop, I heard the old admonition that people who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it, while my companion heard a heartbeat; we were both right. The three years in which Lawrence was working on the panels of Struggle mirror our own times: Mass vaccinations for polio began; the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional; Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks refused to give up their bus seats, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Lawrence’s research into this nation’s early years culminated in this collection of vibrant, earthy visions that point the way to reckoning with more recent histories, from the heart as well as from the head, so as to learn from them more fully, and to thus become more fully ourselves.


JACOB LAWRENCE: THE AMERICAN STRUGGLE
MAR 5 – MAY 23 2021
SEATTLE ART MUSEUM

On the steps of an institutional-looking edifice, below a columned portico labeled GIRLS, sits Flood, perhaps in her very early 20s. Her face, with eyes closed, gives nothing away, but her leaning-forward posture, with arms tucked tightly between her thighs, reads as self-protective. On the wall behind her is a fallout shelter sign. The photograph is in a thin lavender frame.

Documenting the Changing Self: Melanie Flood at Fourteen30 Contemporary

On the steps of an institutional-looking edifice, below a columned portico labeled GIRLS, sits Flood, perhaps in her very early 20s. Her face, with eyes closed, gives nothing away, but her leaning-forward posture, with arms tucked tightly between her thighs, reads as self-protective. On the wall behind her is a fallout shelter sign. The photograph is in a thin lavender frame.
Melanie Flood, Girls (self-portrait), 1996/2020.

If you were going to survey your life, where would you begin? What evidence would you allow into the record, and who might you share it with? As I made my way around the gallery of Fourteen 30 Contemporary to view Melanie Flood’s Notions, such questions kept pinballing around in my head. What is a self-portrait? What is a self?

For many women, defining self is a complicated proposition at best: Trained by society (in ways both infinitesimally subtle and crushingly obvious) to be “nice” and to put others’ needs ahead of our own, self is largely defined by what people want from us. Since these expectations are normalized from early childhood onward, some of us live for three or four decades before we even realize the extent to which we’ve been the subjects—rather than the agents—of our various trajectories. It’s through this lens that I find myself relating to Flood’s photographs, feeling the vulnerability of the artist and the history that I imagine for her, and associating it with my own stories.

The eleven photographs on view, all sixteen by twenty inches and all 2020, are arranged like a slideshow: hung around the room at regular intervals, they give the whole affair a staccato rhythm. As I stepped in front of each new image, I imagined the voice of the artist narrating the display: “Here I am,” click, “This was me in 1996,” click, and so forth. This strategy feels appropriate: when we take stock of our present selves, we often look backward to certain specific moments that changed the directions of our lives—some wonderful, others miserable.

Installation view of "Notions" by Melanie Flood. Small color photographs in lavender frames hang on the white walls of a room, one overlaps a door frame.
Melanie Flood, Notions, 2020. Installation view.

Here Flood’s images are further linked to a particularly feminized/domestic space by her decision to enclose them in frames of bright, uncomplicated lavender—the color of molded plastic baubles from the “Girls” section of a big-box toy store. These are a woman’s pictures, but they are indelibly stamped by the experiences of girlhood. The first image in the sequence, Notions 1, feels like a cryptographic key by which the exhibition could be deciphered. A re-photographed image, it shows a white woman’s beige-manicured hand reaching around a door to place a lavender tag reading “How to Get More Privacy” on the doorknob. The photo reads less like a gesture of Pictures Generation appropriation and more like evidence documented in situ for forensic analysis. The color of the tag matches that of the frames, implying a connection between the show’s framing and privacy. The gesture is one of vacillation between concealment and disclosure, as if trying to control how—and how much—to expose; a fluctuation that reappears through the exhibition.

Other coded images follow: An Apple for Amy (self portrait) shows another white woman’s hand picking a sun-dappled apple from a tree, a direct reference to the garden of Eden fable, which scapegoats women for exile from paradise. Notions 3 depicts a heart-shaped cushion coming apart at the seams; positioned alongside some sparkly fabric, partly shadowed by black transparent material, it’s the photo of an emo teen symbolizing how bruised they are by the world. Miss Piggy, 1989/2020 features a partial view of a room with a framed poster of the Muppets character on the wall, crowned and caped in a royal pose. Also visible are a heart-shaped switch plate and the head of a doll, symbols that abjectly evoke childhood and a stereotypically gendered space. Is the filter one of nostalgia, or regret?

A re-photographed image, it shows a white woman's beige-manicured hand reaching around a door to place a lavender tag reading "How to Get More Privacy" on the doorknob.
Melanie Flood, Notions 1, 2020.
A white woman's hand picking a sun-dappled red apple from a tree
Melanie Flood, An Apple for Amy (self-portrait), 2020.

The most unguarded works in the exhibition are of Flood herself, in five self-portraits that anchor the show, and which feel naked in the sense of being both bare-skinned and exposed. Notions 4 brings the artist into view, albeit in an enigmatic way: Flood’s nude self-portrait is distorted, a mylar reflection that produces the ludicrous exaggerations of a fun-house mirror as well as a strange rippled effect. In such a reflection, the self is rendered indecipherable.

By comparison, the adjacent Notions 5 is filled with specificity. A rack of cassette tapes places the image firmly in the past; wall-to-wall carpet, a cheap plastic chair, louvered closet doors, and clothes on the floor establish its socioeconomic conditions. Amidst the clutter, Flood’s mid-90s self stands in a silver dress and white patent high-heeled slides, regarding the camera knowingly with one hand on her hip. The documentary-like frankness of this image—its borrowed sophistications and dress-up aspirations—feels more raw than the scrambled self-portrait in Notions 4. On another wall, Fan (self-portrait) coyly places the unclothed artist partly behind a large floral curtain, fan in hand, so that she is both concealed and revealed. In Fishnet (self-portrait) we see Flood from behind, dressed in white tights and black fishnet-band bra. There’s a certain honesty here that’s absent in the other self-portraits: a glimpse of armpit hair; pale flesh; incipient wrinkles. This is a body that is beginning to age, earning its stretched, liberated pose but still confined by the conventional trappings of femininity.

We see photographer Melanie Flood from behind, dressed in white tights and black fishnet-band bra. There's a certain honesty here that's absent in the other self-portraits: a glimpse of armpit hair; pale flesh; incipient wrinkles. This is a body that is beginning to age, earning its stretched, liberated pose but still confined by the conventional trappings of femininity.
Melanie Flood, Fishnet (self-portrait), 2020.

But it was Girls (self-portrait) that magnetized and held my gaze. On the steps of an institutional-looking edifice, below a columned portico labeled GIRLS, sits Flood, perhaps in her very early 20s. Her face, with eyes closed, gives nothing away, but her leaning-forward posture, with arms tucked tightly between her thighs, reads as self-protective. On the wall behind her is a fallout shelter sign. All women have pictures of themselves like this, captured in the process of becoming someone else—a moment both prosaic and profound. Novels could be written about photos like this one, populated with young women (or girls, as the sign would have it) who think themselves adult and thus strong, in reality quite achingly unprotected. I wonder about that building, that person, that shelter, that time—was it as safe a haven as it claimed?

We see ourselves, and the world, from circumscribed perspectives informed by race, class, gender, and a host of other social categories. A permanent, established self isn’t possible, of course, because a self is a fiction that’s continually being revised on the fly. The images Flood has created for Notions suggest a changing self located within a difficult but perhaps all too common history, at once revealed and withheld.