Sarasota Art Museum shines a light on the career of artist Robert Colescott


“Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott” unveils the legacy of the game-changing African-American artist. Curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley, this traveling exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati is the first comprehensive retrospective of the life and work of the late artist.

Now on display at the Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College, it is full of satirical and anti-racist imagery. Contemporary eyes might not understand Colescott’s joke. Here is a brief history so that it is not lost in the translation.

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A racist image is worth a thousand racist words. In America’s gruesome past, white perceptions of blacks were framed by the shorthand of racist stereotypes. The black mom, the merry darky playing the banjo – the list is long and sickening. The growing mind of a white child absorbed these images like blotting paper. The mind of the white adult took them for granted. To the point of becoming invisible. And their implicit racist assumptions accepted without a doubt.

Colescott’s art reversed the process. Beginning in the late 1950s, he published a barrage of paintings that subverted and deconstructed the caricatures of white supremacy. At that time, most Euro-Americans wanted to erase their racist past. Colescott wanted them to see it.

This exhibition highlights everything. It spans a lifetime of creation (Colescott died in 2009 at age 83) and includes his non-figurative prior art and his return to abstraction towards the end of his life while struggling with illness. of Parkinson’s. We will focus on the subversive deconstructions of its heyday in the second half of the twentieth century.

This era was the height of Colescott’s art, although his art did not always fall within the critical parameters of what serious art was meant to be. Rather than imitate the master painters of the Western canon, he rather laughed at them.

“The Wreck of the Medusa” by Robert Colescott, 1978, acrylic on canvas.

“The wreck of the Medusa” (1978) is an example. He subverts the heroic story of Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (circa 1819). The original painting showed survivors of a shipwreck hopelessly hanging from a raft.

Colescott’s satire plunges them into the ocean. A showgirl’s leg sticks out of the water in red high heels. A smiling black man (caricatured) in a purple suit is swimming. A crying black baby floats in a basket like an African-American Moses. A black teenage boy in a sailor’s hat rolls his eyes like buckwheat. A busty white lady smiles, languidly resting her arm on a floating suitcase. There are even some bizarre product placements. A white hand lifts a bottle of Coke from the waves. A floating bar of Ivory Soap evokes old advertising campaigns promising “white” purity.

The original painting has grabbed you with a dramatic fight for survival. Colescott’s painting drains the drama and makes everything look silly and commercialized. Why? What is happening?

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Indeed, he was pointing a cannon at the western cannon. And make a hole in the assumptions of white supremacy that hide behind much of its noble images.

Colescott repeats this strategy in “Olympia” (1959) and “Eat Dem Taters” (1975).

In “Olympia” by Manet (1863), a naked white woman in alabaster is lying in her bed while a black servant (her face blends into a dark background) brings her flowers. Colescott’s painting of the same title illuminates the maid and puts her on an equal footing. He subtly implies that the maid’s bouquet could be his romantic gesture.

Robert Colescott's 2002 acrylic on canvas “Sleeping Beauty?  Is featured in a retrospective of his career at the Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College.

Van Gogh’s original “The Potato Eaters” (1885) shows Dutch peasants seated around a table. They were dark, gaunt and almost hungry. Colescott’s satire colors them black. They also barely survive on a diet of shriveled, cold potatoes – but they laugh and smile. The artist describes this painting as “a frontal and brutal attack on the myth of the dark happy”.

A crude joke? You better believe it.

Colescott was inspired as much by underground cartoonists as by respectable artists. You can see echoes of R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton in his deliberate use of ugly ethnic clichés and stereotypes. But great museum treasures weren’t Colescott’s only targets. He also focused on American popular culture.

What if Shirley Temple was black and Mr. Bojangles was white? “Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White” by Colescott (1980) imagines this scenario. In a clever, puny twist on the star kid’s wedding name, Shirley Temple Black is now literally black – and her tap mate is white. Reversing the color code puts their inequality in the real world in a harsh light.

“1919” is not so satirical as it is inclusive. This painting reinvents America’s westward expansion like the story of the Colescott family. This is a typical souvenir card of the United States, studded with cartoon icons of oil wells, cowboys, cattle, and wine on the appropriate states.

Oversized profiles of the artist’s parents emerge from a fluffy pink cloud. Left: his white mother, Lydia Hutton Colescott. Right: Black father, Warrington Colescott, Sr. Garbage and debris strewn around the base of the cotton candy cloud. According to Colescott, this rubbish means “used underwear, popular rubbish, studio sweepings… which have not passed the history of art”.

Colescott’s art contains a funhouse mirror with racist imagery of mid-20th century American culture. It was the central focus of his work, but not a reductive obsession. The artist saw American identity in nuanced terms. But he knew a lot of people didn’t – and that’s the key to his artistic strategy.

Colescott’s Mirror of Art confronts you with distorted and simplistic stereotypes. Your mind instantly rejects it – and searches for the complicated and terrible truth.

In the harsh light of day, the realities of America’s divisions of status, identity, gender, and race can be terrifying. But the lies of American racism are much worse. The funhouse is no fun at all.

Colescott’s art makes you see it for what it is.

When you’re lost in the funhouse, there’s only one thing to do.

Go out.

More visual arts:Read more visual arts stories and reviews by Marty Fugate

“Art and race matter: the career of Robert Colescott”

Runs through October 31 at the Sarasota Art Museum, 1001 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota.


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