2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Lamar Peterson

2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Lamar Peterson

Published April 14th, 2024 by Russ White

Painting Black men in saturated surreality, Peterson channels his own pride, joy, fear, and anger into cartoonish, chameleonic self portraits (of sorts)

MCAD Logo Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship Program. Administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.McKnight Logo

This is the third in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2022 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The 2022 cohort includes Pao Houa Her, Amanda Lovelee, Lamar Peterson, Emmett Ramstad, and Jonathan Thunder.

This series of written profiles has been developed concurrently with a series of video profiles produced by MCAD, the McKnight Foundation, and Clint Bohaty, available at the bottom of this page.

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Photo by Rik Sferra


Tacked up on the wall in Lamar Peterson’s studio are three nearly identical portraits: handsome young Black men in "Florida" t-shirts. Each portrait is painted on top of an empty, black-lined landscape of trees, houses, and mountains that have been sparingly filled in with brightly saturated colors. The paint handling is crisp and deft, realistic but cartoonish, and the ambient purples and browns of the men’s skintones sing against the unfilled sections of bare white paper. The main difference in these three portraits, besides the color of their shirts, is that two of the men are smiling while the one in the middle is more restrained. He looks out at us pensively from this tropical location, seemingly unconvinced by either the palm trees in the background or the ones on his own chest.

These landscapes, Peterson tells me, are copied from coloring books — simplistic visions of tropical paradise — which he has printed out and partially painted over. He’s not playing by the rules, though; the colors are nonlocal and fill their own passages as they see fit, ignoring the lines and leaving whole swaths incomplete. It’s a paint-by-numbers that has gone off the rails, with the men added in on top like snapshots from a vacation. You won’t find any mountains in Florida, you realize, so these guys must have brought the shirts from home. Funny… that’s where Peterson grew up, too.

Home almost always holds a complicated place in our hearts, and that level of nuance — and these three expressions in particular — are perhaps the key to understanding Peterson’s paintings. The happy smiles and the dreadful stoicism exist side by side, sometimes even on the same face. In fact, that same face, or variations of it, are everywhere you look in Peterson’s studio, on sheets of paper attached to the wall and canvases leaning in the corner. Smiling Black men in their gardens, smiling Black men out on a walk, smiling Black men inside their homes. Not every one is smiling, but almost all of the figures are singular, alone on their canvas or, in newer works, joined by another version of themselves. These aren’t exactly self-portraits — printed out images of celebrities and strangers are tacked up on the wall sporadically as source material as well — but they’re not far off. You get the sense that Peterson has put himself through a prism and cast a thousand refracted visions of himself on the wall. And it all goes back to Florida.

Peterson's early paintings featured traditional nuclear families — a mom, a dad, and the kids, painted small and smiling inside surreal situations. “It started out being these all-American families," he says, "and then eventually, I was like, wow, that's not me. It was more about, at that point, my youth and my memories of my parents in Florida, showing the American dream and who has access to it.” Over the years, most of the other characters have faded away, leaving this lone recurring character to his own devices. “It morphed into more self portraiture.”


Top: The Proud Gardener, Bouquet, 2022. Oil on canvas, 60 x 72". Bottom: Red Cabbage, 2022. Oil on canvas, 70 x 60". Images courtesy of Fredericks & Freiser.


Despite all the bright colors and happy faces, Peterson's work remains charged with a certain tension that can be hard to put your finger on. For starters, you just don’t see a lot of smiling in the art world; explicit joy is a resource in short supply in most museums. I first noticed this a couple years ago, while writing a McKnight profile about 2020 Fellow Leslie Barlow. On a trip to Mia, I counted how many happy faces I could find on the walls — only a handful, and even then it was mostly Buddhas and Baby Jesuses. Maybe we’re all too busy thinking serious thoughts inside our serious pictures to let a little light in, as though happiness is best left for the simpletons. Contemporary art certainly doesn’t provide too many examples of smiling faces. Yue Minjun’s endless army of hysterically laughing self portraits take up the challenge, though when they are backed up against a wall to be shot, it’s hard to accept their happiness at face value.

Or take Kerry James Marshall’s 1980 self portrait: a toothy, white grimace of a smile set into the deep black tones of an unreadable face. As with Peterson’s smiling fellow, one’s instinct may be to read these as echoes of blackface and minstrelsy, of capitulation. Black men, as Ice Cube rapped in 1991, “always gotta show their teeth.” The huge, gleaming grins of Peterson’s happy gardeners call to mind LaKeith Stanfield’s character from Get Out — a Black man reduced to perfect pleasance by his white captors; a man whose code has been permanently switched. But, for Peterson (and Marshall, for that matter), that reading is off the mark; it holds his subjects and his own life at too great a distance, through too narrow a lens, and with far too little agency.

“It’s more about family photos, where everybody’s smiling,” he explains. It’s a good place to go to find the kind of emotional complication Peterson is interested in: we spend so much of our adult lives unpacking the traumas of childhood, but there we are saying “Cheese” in every single photo. The smiles are genuine, as is the complexity. “Even if you're having a shitty day, but somebody’s taking pictures,” he says, “you still smile, right?”

“Initially, the bright colors and smiles and stuff bring you in, but then there's something below the surface that's kind of more sinister. And that's always been there from the beginning.”


Top: Distraught (detail), 2020. Mixed media on paper, 17 x 12". Bottom: Path Through the Woods, 2021. Oil on canvas, 70 x 75". Images courtesy of Fredericks & Freiser.


Peterson’s works from 2020 wear that sense of sinister on their sleeve. Nobody seemed to be smiling on his canvases that year, for good reason. Instead, his faces were exploding into collaged confetti, as in Distraught; his figures were marching solemnly in spacious crowds with strong, triangular strides. Still, these are not exactly history paintings cataloging the marches against the MPD — these are self portraits by the dozens. It is a moment and a movement frozen in abstraction, all the more so thanks to the little tents of color between each characters’ legs, like Giacomo Bella’s Futurist dachshund or Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase. Or maybe a closer precursor would be Hanna-Barbera. Picture Fred Flintstone or Tom & Jerry spinning their wheels and going nowhere fast.

When I transcribed our conversation, the app always spits out a list of keywords at the beginning of the document. You may be surprised to learn that “muppet” made the list — we talked about them quite a bit. Cartoons, comic books, Miss Piggy, & Kermit: all of this visual pop culture informs his work, and there are stacks of it laying around his studio. Cartoons tend to flatten, saturate, and exaggerate — exactly the elements that make Peterson’s work so visually rich — but the Muppets bring that complexity to the equation. Their main conceit, the thing that allows the Muppets to endure across generations, is that they’re real. When Jason Segel wrote his 2011 Muppet movie, he had to remove references to felt from one of the musical numbers; it was against the rules to admit they were puppets, even though we can see the wires on Kermit’s hands.


Homebody, oil on canvas.


Peterson’s men are in a similar limbo between portraits and cartoons. Like the narrator in Ellison's Invisible Man, these characters never get a name of their own, but they seem to live full lives all the same. His most recent pieces feature the man in duplicate with a doppelganger, visible as if by old school X-Ray Vision inside their perfect, flat, two-story houses. One man cooks eggs in a pan while his double eats them at a table in the background. It’s almost romantic, like a married couple fixing breakfast, but the scene reads more like a hiccup in time. In another, the man sits happily on the edge of his couch, watching himself simultaneously approach up the sidewalk outside. Isolation has been a larger part of our lives than normal these past four years, and this man seems perfectly content keeping his own company.

He likes to garden, go on walks, cook, and keep a clean house. One thing he doesn’t seem to do is paint. That would probably be a little too meta, a little too on the nose for Peterson’s taste. Instead the man swats at giant flies or loses a glove in his turnip bed. The life of a painter is really no more glamorous; the center of Peterson’s studio is an island piled high with paint tubes, brushes, and paper plates caked in dried oils. And the paintings are already about painting without needing anyone smiling next to an easel: up close, the works are remarkably flat — no impasto here — and for the most part tightly controlled.

When I ask what he enjoys so much about painting, the answer comes quickly: “The possibilities.”

“You see the image in your head, and you want to try to achieve it, bring it to life. And the fun part is that things change, and you're surprised by the outcome. It’s totally different from what you thought.” That sense of control comes only after countless accidents, happy or otherwise, and like his character, it’s a practice rooted in solitude.

“I think for me, being an introvert, painting is a better way to communicate ideas. I have all the control in here; I don't have any assistants. I'm here by myself often talking to myself or screaming at a painting. There’s a lot of battling in here, and I don’t want anyone witnessing my crazy shit,” he says laughing.

On a six foot canvas behind him, one of his gardeners stands alone at a short distance from the viewer, at the end of a trellised hallway of leafy green vines and sumptuous pink flowers. In his hands, he’s holding an orange watering can and a pot of orange flowers; on his face, a big smile. He looks happy, but maybe a bit tired. This series of proud gardeners has developed over the past two years, marking a perhaps more optimistic turn in his output. The smiles seem less pained, more proud. Oftentimes these men lie resplendent in repose — male odalisques bringing a certain come hither energy to their Martha Stewart-level flower displays. Peterson gardens for fun, though he insists he’s still a novice. Not these men. Their flowers are perfect, uniform, in full bloom in unison. The gardeners kneel in front to bask not just in the beauty of their beds but in the glory earned by hard work, by perfection. You can almost see the crack in the facade. It’s joyous and exuberant, maybe a bit defiant, and surely also exhausting.


Top: detail. Bottom: A Young Man with a Fish (Version 2), 2016. Oil on canvas, 47.5 x 57.25". Image courtesy of Fredericks & Freiser.


The character gets that well-deserved rest in another recurring composition, lounging on a picnic blanket under a tree, bathed in dappled light like little clouds of color. Next to him quite often, and for reasons unclear, is a dead fish. The sex and the menace and the calm all mix together. Peterson has had other men pose for these, but they all still embody this anonymous, refracted self. Half hidden behind the tree trunk, he looks out at us with an expression that’s hard to pin down. This time he’s not smiling. Are we welcome or are we intruding? Is he safe, or is he sick, or is he simply relaxing, unbothered and at ease in this particular perfect pleasance?

Peterson is not interested in giving us all of the answers, or, I think, all of himself either, despite these many avatars. Like the full-color Floridians in their black and white worlds or the puppets only visible from the waistline up, the artist leaves the full picture only halfway filled. It’s a form of respect; we’re not owed anything more as an audience than the assumption that we can handle it. The sky is blue, and the grass is green, and everything in between is like life itself: lit from above in glorious shades of technicolor gray. ◼︎ 


The Red Hat, 2022. Oil on oil paper, 18 3/4 x 14 7/16". Collection of Minneapolis Institute of Art.


Video profile of Lamar Peterson, courtesy of MCAD and the McKnight Foundation:

Update on April 11, 2024: Congratulations are also in order for Peterson being named a 2024 Guggenheim Fellow! (Along with 2021 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow Dyani White Hawk!)

To see more of Lamar Peterson's work, visit Fredericks and Freiser or follow him on Instagram @lamarpeterson74.

Banner photo by Russ White.

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