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Tucson Weekly African Odyssey

'Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings' Is A Sumptuous Display Of Politically Charged Narrative.

By Margaret Regan

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  OUT OF AFRICA metaphorically, and out of Italy literally, Robert Colescott's paintings are come home at last to Tucson.

Now mounted in a sumptuous exhibition at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings first went up at the Venice Biennale a year and a half ago. The work of UA professor emeritus Colescott, these extravagantly colored, politically charged narrative paintings were the U.S. entry in the 1997 international art fair. Colescott was the first American painter since Jasper Johns in 1988 to be thus honored, and the first ever African-American artist to represent the U.S. with a solo show.

Since then the paintings have stopped in Minneapolis and in Queens, dropping down to 17 large acrylics on canvas from the 20 in the Venice exhibition. For its first showing in Tucson--and Colescott's first-ever large scale show in his adopted hometown--the UAMA added one painting, "Beauty Is Only Skin Deep," from its own collection.

A note at the entrance to the UAMA galleries incongruously states: "This exhibition is an official presentation of the U.S. government." If so, this is a government representing a culture attractively amenable to self-examination. While Colescott's work on a visceral level is a joyful, jazzy explosion of color, a delirious amalgam of thick paint and edgy lines, on the cerebral level it's an attack on racism and all its works by an artist provocateur.

Traveling easily across cultures and centuries, Colescott's paintings don't stop at the American experience of slavery and segregation. He paints about colonialism in Africa, about miscegenation in Martinique, about Caucasian usurpation of African cultural forms in music and dance and cuisine. He's confrontational in his re-use of stereotypes, forcing uneasy viewers to ponder their own biases. A black man with a gun aims right at us in "School Days," and black hookers show off their wares. A scary black Quasimodo carries off a white Esmeralda in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Homage to Victor Hugo." An urban drunk sprawls collapsed against a trash can in "Bilingual Cop."

But always he pays attention to beauty. "White Boy" is an inventively composed work that shatters all conventions of perspective and proportion to make an unreal space: Here, in a place we can't quite conceive, a black woman and a white man lie together in erotic bliss.

"El Tango," 1995, is divided into shapely fields of flat hues--green, yellow, blue, black--whose dancing shapes are summoned up by the tango's own rhythms. Cascading across this abstracted space are an assortment of human figures. A suave Argentine in mustache looks on a woman in a dance dress, and finds that she has two faces, one unmistakably African. A couple of cartoon figures argue: "Your Tango??" demands a black man. "Yes, from Spain," retorts a white woman. It's a work of cultural salvage, retracing the tango to its African roots.

Similarly, "A Taste of Gumbo," 1990, decorated by a circle of cheerful orange crabs against blue, follows the quintessential N'Orleans dish back to Africa, via the chain of slaves who cooked their traditional foods for their masters. A cameo of a black violinist in this Louisiana smorgasbord likely is a reference to Colescott's father, a classically trained musician who worked all his life as a train porter. A fiddler in early jazz bands with the likes of Louis Armstrong, he fled the segregation of New Orleans and the Deep South for a freer life in Oakland, where his son was born.

Colescott, now age 72, has also roamed widely, and his work is drenched in the art historical tradition. He studied at Berkeley during the heyday of the abstract expressionists; a catalog essay by independent curator Miriam Roberts makes the point that their serious intentions and big canvases are reflected in his own, narrative though they be. He studied under Léger in Paris, and an homage to Léger's cubist takes on the machine age shows up in "Hard Hats."

He soaked up Egyptian and African art during a period of teaching in Cairo, incorporating non-western art that is both linear and figurative.

The painter deliberately mixes up all these styles to underline his points. "The Blues for the Muse" counterpoises dark linear drawings of black blues musicians below an arc of lavishly painted icons of Western art: the lyre, the palette, the Greek temple. In between these polarities is a portrait of Alexandre Dumas, author of French adventure tales, who turns out to have been the son of a woman of Martinique and man of France. Colescott also co-opts cartoon figures, particularly the exaggerated Zip Coons and Jim Crows of 19th- and early 20th-century popular culture. Some years ago, he made his reputation for his reworking of famous paintings of Western art, a Washington Crossing the Delaware aided by blacks drawn in stereotypically racist forms.

In more recent years, Colescott has gone on to even bigger themes. "Triumph of Christianity," 1993, is a sweeping condemnation of religion put to the uses of greed. Organized into a classical composition, it puts at center an uninspiring Jesus holding his arms wide over the colonial world. At left is a map of Africa, and a black slave in chains among piles of bananas; at right are the Americas, and a Native American in chains among corn. In between, an exalted hamburger, icon of American capitalism, glows in a halo. All this for that, the painting says: cynical religiosity, aided and abetted by racism, helped make the world safe for profit.

"Venus I," 1996, tackles the conventions of art and beauty, and America's reluctance to acknowledge its mixed racial heritage. An artist's easel and palettes are set against a space forever shattered by modernism. A downtrodden black woman lies at bottom, a slave, perhaps, whose big cartoon lips did not deter the white men whose lust helped make her a mother-of-us-all. She's never enjoyed the admiration of artists, however. Above her a conventional artist's model, a nude blonde, gazes into the conventional mirror, but she's been transformed in the looking glass. Looking back at her, proudly displaying her body, is a woman black as night.


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