Eugene Palmer: Didn't it Rain (2018)

Eugene Palmer’s new body of work presents us with a range of intriguing paintings, offering viewers an almost endless variety of routes into the work. In titling it as he has, Palmer pays homage to a song that Mahalia Jackson made her own, from the mid-1950s onwards. It is, perhaps improbably so, a decidedly upbeat, triumphantly joyful song, given that it describes the deluge that God caused to descend on the earth, in righteous judgement of sinners unwilling to repent and take refuge in Noah’s Ark. The song describes, in gleeful tones, the relentless rain that came down, washing away the sinful. God’s judgement is recalled in near euphoric, high-spirited terms, creating a song that, were it not for its biblical subject matter, could be heard as an altogether more secular ditty. One of the functions of Gospel music is of course to declare a dedication to Christ, and a turning away from ungodliness. And though enslaved Africans were often forced to adopt Christianity, there can be no doubting the degree to which, had it not been for the faith they so strongly embraced, African Americans and African Caribbeans may well not have survived the long centuries of enslavement.

… Notwithstanding the highly constructed images on which Palmer has based his paintings, there is much to uplift us in this work. Society has developed an abundance of problematic pathologies around Black women. To the caricatures of unworthy welfare claimant and feckless single mother can be added the near-primeval ideas skewing perceptions of Black women’s sexuality. While such debased notions of Black women exist as sick and twisted figments of white imagination, they add to the day-to-day racism and sexism Black women battle. Against these dispiriting realities and challenges, Palmer presents us with images that are almost audacious in their refusal to concede to negativity. We might be forgiven for thinking that Black women, as far this society is concerned, were never meant to look this happy, this self-assured, this self-fulfilled.

… It is in the realm of accentuating dissatisfaction with our individual selves that social media and elements of the internet thrive. They have opened up formidable new fronts in society’s pathological pursuit of individual happiness, via what is arguably a sick and twisted route. Rather than accentuating any positive sense of self we might possess, the internet and social media environment creates the sense that it is only through the declaration of problems, and a concurrent sharing of these problems, that we truly exist as individuals, and can begin a quest for happiness. There is little room for individuals who are genuinely happy in themselves, or settled in their own skins. Instead, sour lives are problematised by accentuating whatever it is about ourselves we are dissatisfied with – relationships (or lack a relationship), body image, body size, medical conditions, or whatever. There is, consequently, a deep negativity at the heart of the ways in which many people relate to each other, leading to us regarding ourselves as individual, ongoing self-improvement projects, not yet worthy of true happiness. 

… Perhaps the ways in which these women are presented is intended to evoke a sense of celestial happiness, but each one conjures up different and unique imagined associated stories. Palmer achieves this by the differing backgrounds against which he presents each woman, and by the innumerable details with which each rendering differs from its neighbours. It is perhaps one woman’s white suit, set against an equally light-coloured background, that gives her the appearance of a martyred saint, whose body may have been horribly wounded in death, but who now rises and ascends, triumphantly, towards the heavens, to be reclaimed and embraced by her Maker. There are pronounced overtones of European religious paintings. The Virgin Mary is, of course, the woman who most frequently figures in altar pieces and other such religious icons. As such, Palmer’s women have the capability of assuming the religious primacy of the woman who is most blessed, and most highly regarded, within Christianity…

The above extracts are from a text, “Eugene Palmer: Didn’t it Rain”, written for the catalogue Eugene Palmer - Didn’t it Rain: New Paintings, University of the Creative Arts, Farnham, 27 January – 24 March 2018

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