There are artists who hit you over the head with the subject of race (see the "Racism Still Exists" posters that popped up recently in New York), and there are artists like Travis Somerville, who want people to work for the meaning in his art. Take his new show, "Travis Somerville: A Great Cloud of Witnesses," in which a piece called W.F. shows an African man from Mali holding an artillery shell amid the words, "My mother is a fish." Anyone who's read William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying will know the quote was uttered by a child from the American South who's inured to his mother's death.
Americans are inured to violence because they watch too much of it on TV, Somerville says. People in war-torn countries, he says, are inured because they experience too much of it. A Berkeley resident who grew up with liberal parents in the American South, Somerville paints captivating people and incorporates unusual objects (like found chairs and American flags) to draw people into his activist artwork. Somerville wants each piece to tell a history lesson or to be a kind of artistic op-ed. The title of his exhibit at Catharine Clark Gallery, "A Great Cloud of Witnesses," derives from the Bible. Beyond the high-minded message is art that's actually fun to take in, like the shovel that has Abraham Lincoln's face on it. Lincoln has a Pinocchio nose. Make of it what you will.
"Travis Somerville: A Great Cloud of Witnesses" runs through April 20 at Catharine Clark Gallery, 150 Minna, S.F. Free; 399-1439 or cclarkgallery.com.