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Eugene Palmer

Born, 1955 in Kingston, Jamaica

Eugene Oliver Palmer is one of the most accomplished and innovative painters to have emerged into practice during the period of the late 1970s to early 1980s. Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1955, he completed an Art Foundation course in Birmingham in the mid 1970s, before going on to secure a BA (Hons) from Wimbledon School of Art in 1978. This was followed, a few years later, with a Teaching Certificate from Garnett College, London, and an MA in Painting from Goldsmiths College, in the mid 1980s. A significant period of solo shows then followed, at venues such as Bedford Gill Gallery (which was the venue for Yinka Shonibare’s debut solo exhibition, the following year), 198 Gallery, and the Duncan Campbell Gallery, a commercial gallery with whom Palmer maintained a relationship for a number of years.

Palmer’s work was, in the late 1970s, twice included in The New Contemporaries, and his paintings were included in a number of group exhibitions, including Caribbean Expressions in Britain in the mid 1980s and, a couple of years later, Black Art: Plotting the Course, which looked at the nature of Black artists’ issue-based practice in the closing years of the 1980s decade.

Palmer’s earliest works were excursions into the terrain of form, colour, composition and shape – non-figurative practice. Within time however, Palmer moved towards figuration, firstly in a fairly loose form, but increasingly, over the years, towards a tighter, more pronounced and explicit type of highly figurative painting. Within his work of the late 1980s, Palmer offered absorbing assessments and interpretations of Britain, Empire, history, and Black identity. As such, his practice was reflective of his own background, having been born in Jamaica at a time in which the island was, along with others in the Caribbean, a Crown colony. Within seven years of Palmer’s birth, Jamaica was of course to secure its independence. But the links with Britain – political, sporting, cultural – among others – would continue through the artist’s lifetime, albeit in changing forms. To this end, the image of the British flag figured time and again within Palmer’s paintings of this period. Palmer grew up in a period of independence and post-independence euphoria and optimism. He came to England in 1966.

A 1988 painting Incubus, depicted a headless Black male figure, running out of the canvas, whilst ‘reading’ a book. The figure appears to be fleeing from a Union Flag draped over a chair. Here, as with other paintings, the artist used the British flag to maximum, though highly ambiguous, effect, at all times managing to extract from the flag new meanings and new interpretations. At a time when the Union Flag was scarcely able to escape its populist readings as a jingoistic motif, Palmer chose to counter this by depicting the flag within a range of decidedly ambiguous contexts

Over the course of the next decade or so, Palmer increasingly and regularly took as his subject assorted and diverse aspects of the Black presence in a number of contexts. The Black presence in Europe, the Black presence throughout the world, the Black presence in photography, and the Black presence in Western (art) history. Although the Black image figured consistently in his work – be that in the form of found imagery or family photograph – his paintings were not about any one thing. Instead, they invited us – challenged us even – to consider a wide range of subjects, both historical and contemporary. It seemed to the viewer that for Palmer, the present and the past were inextricably bound, and that history informed the present as much as contemporary experiences informed Palmer’s – and indeed the viewer’s – understanding of historical occurrences and realities.

One of the most interesting developments in Palmer’s work came in the early 1990s, with the introduction of classical elements into his painting. This fascinating juxtaposition of Black people as subject matter, and the employment of classically derived aesthetics resulted in a new body of work that was wholly unique amongst Britain’s Black artists. This singular body of work included a series of a number of imposing, oversize portraits of Black people, including archival photographs of the artist’s family members. The scale, posture and composition of the portraits drew heavily on the historical tradition of the sorts of grand portraits of landowners, and other such figures, in the manner perhaps of Gainsborough. Thus Palmer was able, within these fascinating works, to give his Black subject matter a dignity and status that simultaneously resonated with debates about land, landscape, identity, citizenship, and belonging.

It was at this time that Palmer came across the photography of Richard Samuel Roberts (American, 1880 - 1936). Roberts was a contemporary of James VanDerZee, though the two photographers lived and worked in different parts of the US. VanDerZee operated in and around the Harlem district of New York, while Roberts operated in Columbia, South Carolina. Roberts photographed the African Americans of his community, particularly those who had achieved degrees of affluence and economic stability in their lives. A significant number of Roberts’ portraits were brought together and published in an important document of his work and the times in which he lived, the book, A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts: 1920-1936. It was this book that so intrigued Palmer. Fascinated by some of the book’s portraits of the economically secure, fashionable and assured African American middle class, Palmer used a number of these portraits in his work of the mid 1990s.

[Richard Samuel Roberts’ work was included in the exhibition Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, which toured to galleries in the UK and the USA in 1997 and 1998.]

Palmer moved on to explore the use of the repeated image in his paintings, particularly those of family members such as his father and his daughters. Commenting on one of these series of portraits, Six of One (1999) Richard Hylton noted that it “…was painted in serial form. It is perhaps unavoidable when looking at such works that we inevitably seek out the subtle differences between them, to arrive at some sort of hierarchy of originality. Yet whilst we might revel in the [supposed] accuracy of skin tone in one, the slightly darker [or indeed, lighter] tone of another casts doubt over our previous judgment. Being drawn to one painting over another or, thinking one better over another, becomes, as much of a game as it is an almost fruitless exercise.” (1)

There is a quiet, understated dignity in this work. Similarly within it, there lies depth, humanity and empathy. Palmer’s work reminds us that artists such as he seem almost effortlessly able to combine artistic skill with new and refreshing ways of discussing the Black image, particularly where the image intersects with issues of art history and contemporary identity.


(1) Richard Hylton, text for Eugene Palmer: Index, Wolsey Art Gallery, Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, 17 January – 28 March 2004. Catalogue unpaginated.

Related items + view all 8

click to show details of Creation for Liberation Open Exhibition Art by Black Artists 1987

»  Creation for Liberation Open Exhibition Art by Black Artists 1987

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1987

click to show details of Decibel Calender 2004

»  Decibel Calender 2004

Brochure relating to a publication, 2004

click to show details of Eugene Palmer | Index

»  Eugene Palmer | Index

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2004

click to show details of History and Identity | Seven Painters

»  History and Identity | Seven Painters

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1991

click to show details of Transforming the Crown

»  Transforming the Crown

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1997

Related exhibitions

»  Afro-Caribbean Art

Group show at Artists Market. 1978

»  Eugene Palmer | Index

Solo show. 2004

Related venues + view all 8

»  The Bronx Museum of the Arts

United States of America

»  Caribbean Cultural Center

United States of America

»  Lincolnshire College of Art and Design

Lincoln, United Kingdom

»  Norwich Gallery

Norwich, United Kingdom

»  Wolsey Art Gallery, Christchurch Mansion

Ipswich, United Kingdom