Robert Freeman’s new exhibition America’s Past-time presents a marked departure for the acclaimed artist. Best known for his exuberant figurative images celebrating the beauty and elegance of the Black middle class, paintings from Freeman’s latest series delve into the profound racial divides within our country. Greatly disturbed by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans, Freeman turned to his art as an expression of anger, outrage, and sadness. The resulting works make up America’s Past-time, wherein adults play traditional children’s games such as Capture the Flag and Blind Man’s Bluff, to terrifying and often deadly ends.
Freeman has always looked to his personal experiences for inspiration and has long been interested in putting themes of race and culture to canvas. Though much of his previous work depicts the rich and jubilant social lives of upwardly mobile African Americans, with celebratory paintings detailing parties and black-tie fêtes, Freeman’s imagery pivoted following the prominent deaths of several Black Americans (often at the hands of police and others in positions of power) in 2020. The works in his America’s Past-time series are no less lively than his paintings of cocktail soirées. They hum with the same frenzied energy, though now with a decidedly different undertone – frightened and anxious rather than elated and joyous.
Freeman states of his new work: “The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor exemplified what Black Americans already knew about their own history. This time a cellphone video secured a horrific event for the whole world to witness. All too soon after came January 6th where again the world observed how divisive and violent our racial politics are. On the eve of the first anniversary of the Capitol insurrection, my paintings represent the division that continues to rip at our nation's seams.”
Each painting in America’s Past-time takes its title from a familiar children’s game or activity. Playing deadly versions of these games, Freeman’s Black figures are portrayed as violently losing to their counterparts: drowning at a regatta of slave ships, hanged by a noose, chased by an angry mob, and so on. While the playful titles belie gruesome scenes, Freeman imparts his Black figures with a dignity that will seemingly elude them in death. They are strong and resistant, scared but fighting for life. They may be the “losers” of these games, but they are the heroes of Freeman’s paintings.
As visual metaphors of the racial divides in our country, the paintings in America’s Past-time are empowered by their blending of seeming innocence and apparent evil. Even the series title is a bit of clever name-play, referring both to fun, harmless games and leisure activities, as well as the brutal “past-times” faced by African Americans during slavery and the era of Jim Crow laws. In this exhibition, Freeman has essentially painted haunting echoes of the past, factual images of the present, and a dismal glimpse at the future. His works are beautifully grim - important warnings and a wakeup call for action towards social justice in our country.
Robert Freeman: America’s Past-time is on view at Childs Gallery, January 13 through March 12, 2021. A virtual opening reception and artist talk with Robert Freeman will be held Thursday, January 13, 6-7pm. Register via Zoom: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZIldO-vqD0qHNRqf3-c_8ngLM4m6FdTuYnX