Art

Consciousness, Conflict, and Contradiction in the Art of Robert Colescott

After viewing Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott — the artist’s most comprehensive retrospective to date — it feels fair to assume that factions of society still aren’t ready for Colescott.

Robert Colescott, “1919” (1980), acrylic on canvas, 71 3/4 x 83 7/8 inches (© 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo, photo by Joshua White)

CINCINNATI, Ohio—As both a question and metaphor, the condition of double consciousness is profoundly evident in the work of Robert Colescott. At the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, a recent exhibition, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott presents 85 works from the artist’s fifty-year career. Visitors familiar with his signature acerbic and satirical tone and the large scale, brightly colored figure paintings of his later career may experience shock upon viewing his earlier and more subtle compositions. The rendering of consciousness, in Colescott’s case, is an evolving dilemma, one of risk and contradiction.  Art and Race Matters interrogates such duality amid a critical contemporary moment where life and art are inseparable and often, indistinguishable.

Robert Colescott, “Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas” (1985), acrylic on canvas, 96 x 92 inches (© 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, all images courtesy the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, unless otherwise stated; photo by Nathaniel Willson)

Raphaela Platow, the director of the CAC, initially conceived of the Colescott retrospective five years ago. She approached Lowery Stokes Sims, the independent historian, curator, and an associate of Robert Colescott for nearly forty years. As the project developed, Sims commissioned writer and Colescott scholar, Mathew Weseley as her co-curator. Together, they produced the most comprehensive retrospective on Robert Colescott to date, honoring his commitment to challenging social codes and false ideas centered on race, gender, and sexuality.

Dedicated to Colescott’s early work, the first section of the exhibition includes a selection of solemn still lives reflecting the precociousness of a young artist, visible in quiet landscapes and impressionistic experiments. After his time in the military, Colescott completed a degree in painting and drawing at UC Berkeley, later spending a year in Paris as an apprentice to Fernand Léger. I was struck by Colescott’s earnestness in these works; they presented a more subdued inquiry in relation to the direct, audacious style found in the bulk of his later paintings. These works must not be overlooked, however, particularly for Colescott’s version of “Olympia” (c. 1959). In it, the Black servant is modestly drawn, with minimal shape, colors bleeding into the background. Her flowers are bountiful and bright. In the original painting by Édouard Manet, the Black servant looks to Olympia, while in Colescott’s version the Black servant looks out of the frame, at us. There seems to be a power he wants to give her, but does not. The oppositional gaze appears as more an implication. Colescott’s rendering conveys a palpable shift, where the viewer becomes implicated in the painting; this technique would later become an important component of his work. 

Installation view of Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott (© Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2019, photo by Tony Walsh)

The second and third floors of the exhibition display bolder works from the 60s and 70s which the artist is best known for. These make consistent use of scumbling (the application of a thin layer of paint over a painting for color variation) and sit starkly against the crisp and seamless architecture of the Zaha Hadid-designed  CAC. These floors host Colescott’s reclamation of art historical narratives, familiar stories, and popular personas, such as “Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White” (1980). In the painting, “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: St. Sebastian” (1986) (part of a series with the same title), we encounter disturbing imagery; its central figure is both Black and white, male and female, with a penis, vagina, and breasts, and a split down the middle, its body punctured by arrows. The distended floating heads of a Black woman and white man rise alongside the figure on either side, conveying a sense of duality and forming the shape of a cross. Here, Colescott’s use of distortion is intent on involving and affecting his audience. It is clear that Colescott wasn’t interested in creating work where viewers can “see” themselves. Rather, his work was invested in making us  “consider” ourselves. 

Robert Colescott, “Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White” (1980), acrylic on Canvas, 84 x 72 inches(© 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, ©1980 Robert Colescott)

It is important to note that Colescott’s work invited resistance and controversy. His misogynistic narratives and use of the female form to talk about race are a distracting misuse of cultural critique. These aspects underscore the complexity of identity, and also demand a readiness to face the uglier realities within the contemporary condition. When questioning the degree to which these transgressive paintings retain their relevance, I was faced with a sense of confrontation, rather than the theme of satire that is often attributed to Colescott’s work.

We return to Olympia. The Black woman emerges from the shadows, sans flowers, shapely and peerless, illustrating Colescott’s fascination with femininity. But she is not autonomous; white or Black, women negotiate a precarious relationship to power in Colescott’s imagination. The “female” often serves as entry point, as in “Big Bathers: Another Judgement” (1984), where the artist’s exploration of intersecting notions of race and beauty among women actually serve to privilege the male gaze. In his artist statement for the Roswell Museum and Art Center (included in the CAC exhibition catalogue), Colescott elaborates, “I’ve never mustached a Mona Lisa, but I have “blacked-faced” a few. Gender, here, seems consequential to him, and black face, or satire more broadly, becomes a technique.

Installation view of Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott (© Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, 2019, photo by Tony Walsh)

One is reminded of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, where the white female protagonist Lula enters as temptress, complete with a tantalizing apple and exits without remorse, even after she kills Clay, the black male protagonist. Intersectionality is also at play here; Lula’s whiteness makes it possible for her to achieve empathy and gain power despite being a murderer. Multiple and overlapping signifiers of right and wrong, male and female, Black and white converge, confusing traditional delineations. This sense of conflict rears its head in Colescott’s use of blackface to further distort and amplify such codes, such as in his humorous “revisionist” painting, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook”(1975). 

Robert Colescott, “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook” (1975), acrylic on canvas, 84 x 108 inches (© 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo by Jean Paul Torno)

Colescott’s work presents us with a definitive subversion to conceptions of art as a tool for excavating consciousness, by inadvertently building upon fragmented (and often socially acceptable) ways of discussing race, gender, and sexuality. Unlearning such codes is integral to critically engaging with his work. After viewing the exhibition, it feels fair to assume that factions of society still aren’t ready for Colescott.

Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott continues at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati (44 East 6th Street, Cincinnati, OH) through January 12, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley.

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