The museum and art industries have suffered severe losses due to the effects of the ongoing pandemic. However, certain institutions, including the Portland Art Museum (PAM), have reopened their doors with cautionary measures in effect, such as requiring visitors to wear face coverings and enacting social distancing policies. PAM, specifically, not only offers in-person tours but has also uploaded virtual walkthroughs of their current exhibitions for free online. The exhibition titled “Art and Race Matters,” featuring the career and work of controversial Black artist Robert Colescott, can be seen either in-person or digitally and will be on display until Dec. 13.
Colescott’s art career began under the tutelage of French modernist painter Fernand Léger in the mid-20th century. His early works possess a blend of abstraction and more formal representation as Colescott experimented with various techniques before settling on his own distinctive style. The subjects of his paintings (including landscapes, figures and still lifes) varied greatly during this period.
Colescott’s position as an artist-in-residence in Cairo, Egypt at the American Research Center revolutionized his earlier subdued style. He experimented heavily with color and form; using massive swaths of color on canvas to both articulate and muddle his depiction of figures. The Egyptian landscape and the country’s cultural heritage challenged Colescott to confront the more experimental, taboo side of art head-on. In his painting “Nubian Queen,” for example, one can discern two possible figures at best; however, vibrant, segmented areas of color cover most of the canvas. The intense use of color seen in this period of Colescott’s career would influence his later body of work.
In the 1970s, Colescott found his stride and began to use aggressive, gestural brushstrokes coupled with intense color usage in his work. He gained notoriety and acclaim for his blatant distortion and reimagining of artworks created decades earlier as well as his aggressive, gestural brushstrokes. In one example, Colescott satirizes Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a portrait of five apparently white women, by depicting three out of the five women in the painting as Black. He further mimics the work of Picasso through his portrayal of the women in exaggerated, suggestive poses. The Black woman in the middle of the portrait reveals her cleavage to the viewer while a white southern belle peers over her shoulder rather erotically.
While Picasso’s art is often criticized for appropriating elements of African art, in “Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas,” Colescott does not shy away from the question of race. In choosing to depict the majority of women as Black, Colescott highlights the absence of the Black figure in art history while simultaneously calling for Black representation within the modern art canon. Furthermore, much of his later work called into question the ethics of contemporary events of his time such as conflicts at the Mexican/U.S. border during the 1990s. Thus, Colescott’s work not only demanded an investigation concerning the absence of the Black body in art history but also into the social and political practices that he witnessed throughout his life.
Within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, this exhibit could not be more relevant. Colescott’s work is intended to make the viewer uncomfortable and to make them acknowledge white supremacy within art history. With the histories and stories of Black artists repressed for so long by dominant white narratives, this exhibition serves as a refreshing look into the career of one artist who never sacrificed content for public appeal.