Moving to Birmingham, UK, from Kingston, Jamaica, as a child, Eugene Palmer uses figurative painting to explore the British black diaspora. Drawing on the experience of being immersed in British culture while remaining symbolically outside of it due to the colour of his skin, Palmer deals deftly with issues of race and representation all while resisting didacticism.
Sourcing images from life, pop culture and beyond, Palmer begins with a photograph before passing it through his painterly filter; figuring his own family as a repository of cultural history and memory, archival images and family photographs have been at the core of his practice since the 1980s. In Standing Still, Palmer presents paintings based upon two recent family celebrations: one the marriage of his youngest daughter, and the other a family reunion spanning four generations.
Double-portraits, the subjects of the marriage paintings – Self Portrait with Rory; Cynthia with Rory; Kath and Owen and The Two Fathers – stand and meet the viewer’s gaze. Painted larger than life, parents, grandchildren, grandparents andother relatives alike are dressed in their finest clothes; meanwhile, brush marks highlight oil paint’s fluidity as a medium for recording people and their place in the world, echoing experiences of dislocation within a diasporic community.
With each figure representing a distinct generation, careful juxtapositions throughout the marriage paintings invite reflection on post-colonial heritage and racial taboos. While a second group of paintings – Ann, Ann with Grandchild, and Tony – grapple with similar themes, less formal poses offer a more human lens on the meandering relationships of a contemporary family.
Still, there is a discernible seriousness in the poses of Palmer’s subjects – reflective perhaps of the occasion’s solemnity, but also the counterintuitive remove demanded by the artist’s inherently personal project. Marriages reflect shared cultural histories as well as individual identities; framed by canvas against a flat colour background, Palmer’s subjects find themselves superimposed over empty pictorial space: all the infinite complexity of an individual, over tabula rasa.
Late Evening, on the other hand, describes its subjects in movement. As family members talk, laugh and celebrate being together, the painting’s intergenerational dynamic asserts a strong and confident presence. Set against a panoramic view of an English landscape and sky, the figures are clearly located in space; all seem absorbed in each other, with only a small baby in its mother's arms catching the viewer’s eye as if to question its place in the tableau.
Eugene Palmer lives and works in St. Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1955, Palmer moved to Birmingham, UK, in 1966. He graduated with a BA (Hons) in Fine Art from Wimbledon College of Arts in 1978 and completed an MA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London in 1985. Closely associated with the BLK art group, whose members included Eddie Chambers, Lubaina Himid and Sonia Boyce, Palmer’s work is held in several public and private collections, including Arts Council Collection and Wolverhampton Art Gallery.