Every nation has its own mythology, a legendary history of its founders meant to unite and inspire those who follow. King Gilgamesh of Ancient Sumer, Romulus and Remus of Rome, and King Arthur’s defense of Britain with his mighty Excalibur are but a few of the numerous examples. Without a doubt, George Washington is the key figure in the lore of the United States, and among the most iconic images of the brave general is Emanuel Leutze’s George Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), painted 75 years after the fateful event. While historians debate on the accuracy of the details—would the Old Fox really be standing?—there is one fact most agree upon: that particular flag would not have been there. It was the Great Union flag, and not the familiar Star-Spangled Banner that would have accompanied old George on that fateful night.
The United States flag has a mythology of its own, often celebrated in paintings that document turning points in the nation’s history. Leutze fully understood the patriotic appeal of the flag while toiling away on German soil to create his icon of Americana. This tradition continued in the able hands of Alfred Jacob Miller with his Bombardment of Fort McHenry (1828-30), a visual narrative to Francis Scott Key’s famous musical ode to The Star Spangled Banner, while Frederick Church later paid homage with his painting Our Banner in the Sky (1861), an allegoric sunset transformed into the famous tattered flag of Fort Sumter, where the Civil War ignited into full-scale war. More recently, the stars and stripes have become a means to critique and embody social and political unrest. In 1990, African-American artist David Hammons recast the familiar red, white and blue in the cloak of Marcus Garvey’s pan-African flag of red, black and green to highlight issues of identity and race in America with his African-American Flag. A few years later, the Swiss-American Hans Burkhardt’s final painting, The Extra Stripe (1994), formed the flag from weathered burlap, replacing the field of stars with horizontal cruciforms, alluding to the casualties of war in protest of the US involvement in the Middle East.
R. Nelson Parrish draws on this deep-rooted legacy in his exploration of the symbolism of the United States flag. His series of paintings, titled 21 Flags, is clearly based on the familiar pattern of stars and stripes, but abstracted nearly beyond recognition. By doing so, he compels the viewer to grapple with the scrapes, gaps and scratches while mentally reconstructing the familiar image hung vertically. The end result is neither a patriotic ode nor didactic lecture, but a process-driven technique that collectively speaks of the polysemic nature of the flag itself.
See full essay at: 21flags.com