Since making a commitment to figurative painting, Eugene has taken as his subject assorted and diverse aspects of the Black presence in a number of contexts. Primarily, these are the Black presence in Europe, the Black presence internationally, the Black Presence in portrait photography and the Black presence in Western (art) history. But Eugene's paintings have never depicted Black people within didactic or clumsy political terms of reference. Similarly, he has been effortlessly able to steer clear of the sentimental and the uncritical in his depictions and portrayals of Black people. Instead, within the realm of portraiture, Eugene has sought to paint his subjects in challenging, considered and sensitive ways. His paintings are not simply 'about' the personalities of the individuals - some family members, some not - that the artist takes as the subject matter for his portraits.
'Standing Still' Oil on canvas 1988. 180cm x 183cm
One of the most interesting developments in Eugene's work occurred in the early part of the last decade, with the conscious 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 artists. This extensive body of work included a series of a number of imposing, full length portraits of Black people, many of them based on what have become archival photographs of the artist's family. The scale, posture and composition of the portraits drew heavily on the historical tradition of the sorts of grand portraits commissioned by leading figures within the clergy, royalty, industry or business. Now, Eugene has taken that particular series further, by depicting one of his daughters in two full figure poses that are framed in a manner that was (in terms of art history) ordinarily reserved from depictions of those such as saints or the apostles. Thus Eugene is able to give these particular portraits an ambiguous yet pronounced dignity and status that cannot help but have fascinating social readings.
This exhibition features a selection of Palmer's most recent paintings, in which his portraits are rendered in a highly finished stylism. Appearing in multiple form, the paintings challenge us to engage with Palmer's questioning of difference, sameness, history and identity. Take for example the paintings of one of the artist's daughters. The six paintings are all executed in similar tones of rich, warm engaging yet controlled colour. At first glances, each of these portraits [Copy Series I - VI] appears to us to be an unnervingly close facsimile of the other five. But if we allow ourselves to properly consider these paintings, they afford us some fascinating points of entry. Along with debates about the ethics of fertility treatment, matters concerning genetic engineering are what have most exercised and agitated the British media in recent years and months. From this perspective, Eugene's renderings of one of his daughters take on a particular relevance. Has Eugene visually cloned his daughter? Are the images of his daughter all the same? Is it indeed possible to recreate or simulate sameness? This work prompts us to ask ourselves such poignant questions - if we allow it to.
It is of course not possible for a painter to paint the same portrait twice. The next 'copy' painting cannot in any way help but be different from the one that preceded it - whatever the artist's intention. The closest he can come to this is a 'copy' that looks the same. But looking the same and being the same are two profoundly different affairs. In striving for what we might call an mock cloning, Eugene is in actuality accentuating difference and debates about difference. Simultaneously, there is a quiet, understated dignity in this work. Within the almost affected stylism, there lies depth, humanity and indications of a sensitive relationship between an artist father and his daughters, as they grow from girls to young women.
The full version of the above text, written by Eddie Chambers, was published in a brochure to accompany the exhibition 'Eugene Palmer: New and Recent Work', Threshold Gallery, University of Bath, 21 November - 18 December 2000.