“I am a PAINTER!” An essay on the Work of Tam Joseph

During his appearance in one of my classes at UT, Tam Joseph made a very poignant comment about his great frustration about being referred to, interviewed as, and inherently marginalized as a black artist.  He said, “I am a painter!” and shared his wish that the art world would treat him as one.  Reading Celeste Marie Bernier’s article on his work after the class, I saw the damage that the categorization has done to his work.  Instead of being hailed as the incredible painter he is and lauding his beautifully refined technique, almost the entire article was dedicated to the sociopolitical context of his work.[1]  Bernier commented that very few people had written on his work, and it is no wonder to see why.

 We can often attribute the success of artists to the critics and art historians who write about them and expose their work to a wider audience.  But truly, their success lies in the reader.  Writers can praise artwork all day, but if no one reads the praise, it’s shouting in an empty room.  No one will go see the work.  In the case of Bernier’s article, it is clear she has an audience in mind.  Her writing is geared towards those with an interest in and baseline knowledge of the African Diaspora.  Her work serves the purpose of contextualizing Joseph’s work within the sociopolitical issues of London, but much less within the greater art world.

In my opinion, art historians tend to focus so much more on the context than the craft of the work, and they do so at great cost to the artist and the audience.  In discussions about exhibitions of Buddhist Art, the issue of accurate viewer appreciation of Buddhist art in Western museums is often at hand.  Since there typically isn’t a large Buddhist population in the audience, it is hard and rather imposing to suggest or encourage a religious connection to the object.  Providing the context of the figure or image proves to be difficult too; it isn’t possible to describe the imagery, role, and function of a Tara figure on a 5x10 inch tombstone.  But it is possible to point out details of the craft that the viewer might miss.  It is easy to establish value by the amount of effort put into making the figure.  We live in a consumer society that prices things based off of their production.  Why not speak in a language the viewer already understands? 

I am not suggesting that we ignore context.  But I think it is possible to truly understand the value of an object if you do not understand how it was made.  For example, looking at Joseph’s work, we can see much more about each piece just by how they were made.  In Spirit of the Carnival, Joseph used acrylic paint on brown paper.  In his lecture, he spoke about how it was a quick response painting.  He was loose on technique and used it as a sketch, as a pre-painting almost. However, this free and unfettered response to his time at Carnival allowed for the free and emotive brushstrokes that capture the spirit and his feelings so accurately.  At this point, looking only at how it was made, we can understand that Joseph had an intense emotional response to his experience at Carnival.  The piece itself provides clear visual imagery to convey the negative involvement of the police and the pain of the dancing figure.  From there, it is possible for the viewer to analyze Joseph’s reaction to the police force and the context of the piece on their own.  

For Mr. Frog has the Last Laugh, there are endless things to discuss.  Joseph chose to work on a stretched linen canvas.  As a painter, I know that linen is the premium canvas material, especially in comparison to brown paper.  Any artist who chooses to use linen for a piece has designated that piece as significant.  Rather than the painting being a quick response, his choice demonstrates a greater intention and plan behind his idea.  Another nuance to this painting is his choice of acrylic paint over oil.  While it is typical for a scene like this to be painted on linen, the paint of choice is normally oil.  Oil paint has been the painter’s paint since the Renaissance.  On the other hand, acrylic paint was only introduced 70 years ago.  It is cheaper, easy to work with, and typically also has brighter colors.  Joseph paints a detailed classical scene with a modern twist by using a traditional expensive canvas and modern cheap paint, something that can be recognized even before one begins to tackle the imagery

His technique and skill places him among the masters as well.  His Laughing legend with the Stratocaster places him in direct context with Frans Hals and Mr. Frog Has the Last Laugh evokes the skill of Hieronymus Bosch.  In cases like this, there is no need to separate the artist by time or context when they speak so clearly to each other.  This is the way to rewrite art history, to include greater numbers of artists and aptly appreciate each one.  It works even for conceptual art if the craft is defined by the development and dissemination of an idea. 

There is no doubt the narrative needs to change soon.  There is too much marginalization in art history, and while strides toward inclusion have been made, I wonder if it is time for a more radical approach.   

[1] Celeste Marie Bernier, ‘Tam Joseph’, from the chapter “I’m Always Ready to Die”: Memorializing Slavery and Narrativizing Freedom [Betye Saar, Lubaina Himid, Benny Andrews, Tam Joseph], University of California Press, 2018: 58 - 63

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