Fault lines in America and Ukraine


“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” a boisterous retrospective at the New Museum, promises to be appreciated by virtually everyone who sees it, though some may be dogged by suspicions they shouldn’t. For more than three decades, until he was slowed down by health problems in his two thousand years – he died in 2009, at the age of eighty-three – the impetuous figurative painter has danced through minefields of racial and sexual provocation, celebrating libertine romance and cannibalizing canon art history through appreciative parody. He was born in California, the son of musicians from New Orleans. His mother, yes, and possibly his father, who worked as a railroad boy, had slave ancestry, but both – and Colescott – could pass for white. As Matthew Weseley, the exhibition’s co-curator with Lowery Stokes Sims, recounts in the splendid catalog, Colescott’s mother insisted on the ruse, which he embraced. The mild-mannered modernism of his early works, sampled at the New Museum, in no way suggests otherwise.

This changed explosively when Colescott turned forty during a period between 1964 and 1967 of sojourns in Egypt, where he immersed himself in old and new African cultures. From that epiphanic moment, he went all out on the complexities of his racial identity. Being a black American man, whatever else, became the dominant conceit – and license – of his later art, which he imbued with a perhaps penitent, obviously vengeful, irony for the rest. of his life. By not sparing himself a spectacle of cartoonish mockery, he offered no distance, let alone an escape, from the fault lines of race in American democracy. As a bonus, he freed himself to mock, with tremendous energy, motifs from past Western art that he had always venerated.

Want to be shaken? Contemplate ‘Eat Dem Taters’ (1975), an all-black reworking of van Gogh’s first painting of poor Dutch peasants sharing a frugal meal, ‘The Potato Eaters’ (1885), with a minstrel aura. How could Colescott – or anyone, really – have expected to get away with this or, from the same year, with a race-changing pastiche of Emanuel Leutze’s Nationalist Chestnut “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851)? A bespectacled George Washington Carver, the pioneering botanist, replaces the nation’s founding hero of the Revolutionary War. A cheerful fisherman at the bow of the boat brings in a catch. A banjo player strums from the back.

Not offended enough yet? Add to that “A Winning Combination” (1974), in which a perky white cheerleader, backed by a waving Stars and Stripes, is nude from the waist down. Add “Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder” (1979), a self-portrait of the artist distracted by a white model undressing while repainting Matisse’s hedonistic masterpiece “La danse,” from 1910. Still with me ? How about “The Judgment of Paris” (1984), in which a black-clad protagonist is lasciviously vampirized by a naked white Venus, much to the annoyance of rival white and black goddesses? Rather than angrily or mournfully criticizing racist stereotypes and associated taboos, Colescott shot the moon with them.

There’s a lot going on in these images, starting with the way they’re executed, in a fast and loose, juicy, expressionistic manner and through a flamboyant palette that ranges from saturated pink to magenta and thunderous blue. Along the way, Colescott plunders the distinctive hues of Willem de Kooning’s iconic “Woman I” (1951) with “I Gets a Thrill, Too, When I Sees De Koo” (1978), in which the face of a smiling black female wearing a headscarf replaces that of the Dutchman’s generic white female. (The title joked with a revamp of de Kooning the year before, “I Still Get a Thrill When I See Bill,” by pop artist Mel Ramos.) Colescott ignored the abstract and conceptualist fashions of the late 1970s. sixties and early seventies, securing itself marginal status in the mainstream art world as a particular taste or, say, anti-taste. As if in sweet revenge, his atavistic style and composure began to influence young artists from many walks of life in the late 70s and continue to do so today. Without the impetus of his revolutionary audacity, it is hard to imagine the recent and ongoing triumphs of, among others, fearless satirical artists Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker.

Colescott’s choice to represent the United States at the 1997 Venice Biennale initiated a general surrender to his inescapable power, although most American high society institutions had yet to capitulate. The New Museum’s presentation on “Art and Race Matters” is an unplanned addition to a tour that began in Cincinnati and, after traveling to Portland and Sarasota, was to end in Chicago. Roberta Smith, who reviewed the show in the Timerightly said that the implied delicacy is a disgrace to our great New York museums, whose pro-diversity rhetoric characteristically stops at anything not respectably and perhaps theorized just too mischievously irreverent.

As free in life as on the web, Colescott was married six times, twice to the same woman, whom he therefore divorced twice, while studying and then teaching in a series of schools and colleges in the West Coast and Southwest. After his war service in the army, he attended a class in Paris led by Fernand Léger and, in 1951, obtained a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley. In the catalog scholarship, wit and wisdom mark a vivid selection of his occasional writings, in which he proves to be his own most insightful critic. His last position, before retiring in 1995, was as a full professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Is there anything to be said against Colescott’s unbridled recklessness? If you wish – I for one am hospitable to discussion – but resistance is not easy as you feel delightfully toppled like a sensitized pinball machine through rooms filled with the artist’s most aggressive creations. The effect is comic in a key beyond outrageous. Inraged? Metarage? I remember the liberating shock of Mel Brooks’ breathtaking film “The Producers”, which coincided, in 1967, with the beginning of the Colescott pictorial insurrection. Undeniably, while denigrating American inequities and insulting compensating inhibitions, he let — or, more accurately, rang, to a volume to wake the dead — freedom.

“Women at War”, at the Fridman Gallery, amazes. I wish everyone could see it. The exhibition brings together drawings, photographs, paintings, a print and video installations by a dozen excellent Ukrainian artists, none of whom are familiar to me. All are women, many of whom are young. Many come from the ravaged region of Donbass. Two remain in Ukraine. Others left the country only recently. With the exception of one historical piece – a 1963 linocut portrait of the nationalist poet Ivan Svitlychny by Alla Horska, an artist and activist murdered, it seems by the KGB, in 1970 – everything is post-takeover. Crimea by Russia, in 2014. show, examples of steely discipline ennoble dramas of suffering and challenge.

An oversized oil painting by Lesia Khomenko in March this year, ‘Max in the Army’, tenderly depicts the partner she had to leave behind, in her flight first to Poland and then to United States. Both resolute and terribly vulnerable, he is adorable. She loves him. To contemplate three beautiful watercolors of sylvan landscapes by Anna Scherbyna – one painted per year from 2016 to 2018 and representing almost discreetly ruins in the Donbass, an airport and two hospitals – you have to lift small dull-colored curtains. Olia Fedorova’s photograph ‘Defence’ (2017) shows a row of white anti-tank obstacles, or ‘hedgehogs’, lined up along a snow-covered slope. They’re made of paper, which denotes both a foreboding of futility—premature, as it turned out impressively—and a lion’s will.

They are tough-minded creators whose moral fiber should humiliate those of us who are comfortably removed from a cataclysm that adapts the repertoires of international art to the lived truths of a convulsed, real place. Some are disturbing. The most disturbing, by Dana Kavelina, are deliberately crude pencil drawings executed on crumpled white paper punctuated with blood-red colored internal tears. Several of them allude to rape. A sketch of a woman using a fetus’ own umbilical cord to suspend it is titled “Woman Kills Enemy’s Son” (2019). A climactic image suggests the birth of an assault rifle.

But the versatile Kavelina, a rising star in her late twenties, also created an elegiac and desperately moving video projection. The nearly twenty-one-minute widescreen “Letter to a Dove” (2020) shows archival film footage of coal miners in the Donbass with expressive female faces and hypnotically stylized explosions of fire , almost meditative. The work immerses the viewer in a sort of minor-key visual cadence that resonates with the very heart and soul of a nation that has become aware of itself – past, present, unknowable future – in indescribable conditions. . Its beauty becomes as exciting, if not as convenient, a Ukrainian weapon as a given howitzer.

Nothing in the show is neither inciting nor sentimental but only hard-earned, like a series of drawings by Alevtina Kakhidze which begins in 2014 and tells of her contact with her mother in the occupied territory of Donetsk. The mother died of a heart attack in 2019 while crossing the border to get a Ukrainian government pension. Reminiscent of Kavelina’s video, a sequel to inkjet prints by Evgenia Belorusets, “Victory of the Vanquished” (2014-17), seeks melancholy solace in nocturnal or hazy views of laborers at work to various tasks in dismal circumstances. The subjects could be anyone, even ourselves if our existence involved a never-ending state of emergency.

The show is elegantly and, above all, eloquently set up by Monika Fabijanska, an independent art historian and openly feminist curator who does her homeland, and all of us who will willingly pay attention to it, a cathartic service. . ♦


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