Noah Saterstrom’s Shubuta and Other Stories at Julia Martin Gallery
by Jochen Wierich
Unlike history painters of previous centuries, Saterstrom is not a storyteller who happens to use painting as his medium. His painting practice ventures into territory where personal narrative and memory collide with the history of slavery and Jim Crow in the Deep South.
According to the art historian Lisa Saltzman, contemporary art from Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial to Kara Walker’s silhouette cutouts is an accumulation of sites of memory. Digging through these sites of memory, artists follow the shadows and footprints left by historic trauma.
For artist Noah Saterstrom, historic trauma is a family affair. His recent body of work takes us to his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi. His grandparents’ home was on the Natchez Bluff, where one can still enjoy a view of the Mississippi River while sitting on the porch of a mansion.
While researching artists from Mississippi for an upcoming exhibition organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art, I encountered Saterstrom’s multi-panel painting Natchez Bluff when it was exhibited at the Historic Natchez Foundation. In a frieze of seventeen small paintings, Saterstrom struggled with the challenge of representing the history of Natchez outside the narrative framework of aristocratic nostalgia.
Unlike history painters of previous centuries, Saterstrom is not a storyteller who happens to use painting as his medium. His painting practice ventures into territory where personal narrative and memory collide with the history of slavery and Jim Crow in the Deep South. In researching his ancestors in antebellum Natchez, Saterstrom discovered that one side of the family openly advocated for the abolition of slavery while another side owned thousands of slaves. In Saterstrom’s canvases, this family history is woven into an ever-widening inquiry into the American historic crucible: the French and Spanish colonizers, the Natchez Indians virtually wiped out by the French, Natchez planters who wanted to remain in the Union, the African-American Union soldiers who came to occupy Natchez, and so on.
In the history of American painting, Saterstrom found inspiration in the work of Philip Guston. Like Guston, Saterstrom seeks to express in painting the darker side of history with canvases that conjure the traces of human pain and suffering.
Saterstrom graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, and he is very familiar with the history of European art. In his work, one can easily draw analogies with Goya, Daumier, and Delacroix, artists who created graphic images of war atrocities, although the violence in Saterstrom’s work is more subdued. It is implied but rarely bubbles to the surface. If Guston and others sought to find a painterly way to draw and paint that which is unspeakable, Saterstrom is stuck in a different kind of dilemma. The very family stories that feed his imagination are also what serves him as a reminder of his own limitation as an unreliable narrator—which makes his paintings more compelling.
In the exhibition Shubuta and Other Stories at Julia Martin Gallery, Saterstrom presents a new body of work that tackles a gripping family story. During the Union occupation of Natchez, one male family member was accused of spying for the Confederacy and had to go into hiding. His pregnant wife, her son, and his nurse and caretaker, a female slave named Emeline, left Natchez for the town of Shubuta. The wife lost her baby on the way. The visitor first encounters this story in a long, frieze-like panel portraying a non-linear narrative somewhere between myth, memory, and dream. The bedridden mother is visible on the right side of the painting lying in a cart with a bloodstained cloth between her legs. Other, smaller paintings reference the slave-owning family mostly through ghost-like presences of ancestors/masters and slaves.
“…Saterstrom seeks to express in painting the darker side of history with canvases that conjure the traces of human pain and suffering.”
Upon entering another room in the gallery, the visitor encounters a provocative and unsettling pair of paintings. On one side is Saterstrom’s In Times of War, a depiction of the mother after her miscarriage taking shelter at a plantation when her breasts became engorged. To give her engorged breasts relief from excruciating pain, slaves gave her two puppies.
Next to it is a painting by the Rymer Gallery artist Sam Dunson. When Dunson and Saterstrom met at Julia Martin Gallery, they engaged in a discussion about race and representation that inspired the idea of an artistic call-and-response. Says Julia Martin: “Days after this conversation is when it occurred to me to invite Sam Dunson to make a response piece to In Times of War. He and Noah both enthusiastically agreed to this exchange.”
Dunson, who only briefly saw In Times of War, returned to his studio and channeled his response into a painting that visually enacts sheer terror and takes its title from a dictionary: “antebellum /an-tee-bel-uh-m/ adj. before or existing before a war, especially the American Civil War; prewar.” Dunson’s painting turns the antebellum plantation romance into a nightmare, a disturbing scene of violence and power abuse, that stands in the best artistic tradition of making truths evident through caricature. However, if Kara Walker’s black silhouettes of plantation perversity and pain remain specters from the past, Dunson’s high-energy painting makes the plantation a phantasmagoric reality.
During one of my meetings with Noah Saterstrom, he reminded me of Pliny the Elder’s legend about the Corinthian maid and the origin of painting. According to the legend, the young woman drew the outlines of her lover’s face onto a wall projected by candlelight right before he left for war. The young man never returned, but his shadow on the wall remained. The story reminds us that in the history of painting there is a fundamental correlation between trace and memory. While they are very different painters and storytellers, both Saterstrom and Dunson fill the void left by history’s absence with a fervent imagination and the desire to know.
Shubuta and Other Stories by Noah Saterstrom with works from Sam Dunson is on view at Julia Martin Gallery through February 15. For more information, visit www.juliamartingallery.com. See more of Saterstrom’s work at www.noahsaterstrom.com. To see more of Sam Dunson’s work, go to www.therymergallery.com.