Robert Colescott: My Shadow
South Etna Montauk Foundation, Montauk, NY
Curated by Alison M. Gingeras
On August 20th, South Etna Montauk Foundation will inaugurate Robert Colescott: My Shadow, a monographic exhibition devoted to the groundbreaking American artist who fearlessly tackled issues of race, gender, and power over his six-decade career with irreverent flair.
Organized in close collaboration with The Robert H. Colescott Trust and curated by Alison M. Gingeras, My Shadow is comprised of fourteen emblematic paintings and drawings made between 1969 and 1994. Charting the evolution of his mature painting style, My Shadow explores several of the provocative themes that the artist probed over the course of his prolific career. A pioneer of figurative American painting, Colescott (1925-2009) often used humorous cartoon-like renderings to address hot button social and political subjects, as well as his own complicated identity and desires.
The double is one of the key tropes of My Shadow. Deployed as both a narrative and formal device, Colescott is able to address a nexus of pressing social issues—systemic racism, interracial desire, gender power dynamics, and cultural hybridity. A master of translating complex social constructs into visual images, Colescott frequently rendered scenes that featured twins, two-faced figures, bifurcation, shadowing, code switching, and mirroring to unpack larger social issues as well as themes that touched upon his personal identity. This doubling is a consistent thread that runs through many of the works featured in My Shadow.
The exhibition takes its title from an iconic drawing from 1977 showing a Black man and a white woman dancing in their pajamas. On the bedroom wall behind them, Colescott has drawn a sheet of paper with the opening verses of Robert Louis Stevenson’s eponymous poem My Shadow:
I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.
Colescott subverts the innocence of Stevenson’s verse meant to convey a child’s wonderment and delight looking at their own shadow—injecting it with charged layers of personal and socio-political meaning. Wearing top hats, the interracial couple performs a vaudeville “shadow dance”—a theatrical skit that originated in the mid-nineteenth century in which the movements of a white performer are mimicked by a child in blackface. Pouring gas on this racist historical reference, Colescott plays up the sexual taboo of miscegenation in an otherwise burlesque boudoir scenario.
Interracial couplings were a consistent theme in Colescott’s oeuvre—referencing his own marriages to white women as well as his own family’s complicated history with being white passing. Other works in the exhibition such as the self-portrait drawing Am I Blue? (1982) depict the artist as a two-headed being. His “normal self” paints a canvas sitting at his easel, while his racially caricaturized double grins and ogles a buxom white woman with red lips. These deliberately stereotyped depictions of Blackness are also present in the two Old Crow drawings in which the artist depicts himself as a crow—a dual reference to the Blackface minstrel show character and the later Jim Crow laws that legitimated segregation and racist policies in the American South. In one of these 1970s watercolors, Colescott portrays himself literally “on the fence” between two beautiful women, one Black and one blonde. The doubling theme in these classical works stems from Colescott’s apparent inner conflict over race and sex—he portrays this conflict as both an internal divide as well as an external or social divide.
The bifurcated Black and white figures that appear in multiple drawings and paintings from the 1960s through the 1980s conjure his own history of passing as one race while embodying both and perhaps identifying internally as neither. Yet to disarm the gravity of these socio-political issues, Colescott uses an arsenal of bright colors, cartoonish drawing style, and whimsical, theatrical narrative to challenge fraught social realities about race and gender, a signature strategy that he dubbed his “one-two punch.”
“For Colescott, sex and race are inextricably mixed,” writes art historian Matthew Weseley in the recent publication Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott. “[H]is paintings of the 1970s demolish many of the clichés regarding race with which he grew up. Like Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor—whom he admired—Colescott assumed the role of the comic shaman, who addresses serious issues in a humorous way, leading the viewer to realize the absurdity of ideas that often go unquestioned.”
This satirical and transgressive humor is evident in other cartoon-style paintings featured in My Shadow. When Colescott returned to live and work in the US, settling in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970s, he forged some of his most important works in which he was able to “interject Blacks into art history.” He appropriated and transformed famous paintings by changing the races of the protagonists such as in his iconic work George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975). In the same period, Colescott produced several works in a similar style but focused on questions of his sexual desire in conjunction with the zeitgeist of feminist politics and changing attitudes toward sexual liberation. Using his irreverent humor, the three paintings in South Etna Montauk’s second gallery, PROTECT BEAVER VALLEY (1972), Olympic Event (1972) and TWILIGHT ON THE DESERT (1977), capture the self-aware lampooning of his own attraction to a certain “type” of woman.
The omnipresence of the proverbial “white girl” in Colescott’s oeuvre of course speaks to the stereotype of the All-American beauty—tall, blonde, curvaceous—that dominated mainstream culture in Colescott’s lifetime. But these recurrent representations of white women go well beyond a personal sexual fetish for Colescott. This sexually taboo subject of a white woman with a Black man—often portrayed with allusions to violence as in the comic strip backdrop of Olympic Event—is an allegorical trope that Colescott used to probe his inner turmoil around power, identity and desire. Colescott’s paintings of white women are visually akin to the complex overidentification that Hilton Als describes in his groundbreaking book White Girls (2013), in which they function as a cipher to discuss power and identification.
Cairo Paintings: When Colescott became Colescott
Upon entering South Etna Montauk, the first gallery is anchored by three paintings from the late 1960s and early 1970s: a crucial period when Colescott was becoming Colescott. In these paintings, he was searching for his essential subject matter and honing his mature painting style. For several years in the 60s, Colescott lived and worked in Egypt, first as an artist-in-residence at the American Research Center in Cairo, and later as a teacher at the American University there. His encounter with Egyptian art as well as his physical presence on the African continent occasioned multiple life-altering revelations.
The paintings he made during and immediately following his Cairo period feature amorphously rendered figures that resemble swirling spirits, often fragmented and set against large churning fields of bright color. It was the first time that Colescott began to foreground Black subjects in his work; previously his works were abstract or contained white figures. As Colescott explained of this seminal moment, “Living [in Egypt] in a complex society that was largely, basically Black and was also Muslim influenced the way that I thought about myself and the world I lived in.” The three works from this period included in My Shadow capture the artist’s epiphanies about race as an equally political and personal subject. With overt references to the strife over the war in Vietnam, these post-Egypt paintings, such as NAM-BOOGiE (1969), prefigure the hallmarks of Colescott’s combination of narrative and era-defining politics treated through the lens of his distinctive aesthetics.
After two decades of making satirical, comic-inspired narrative paintings for which he became famous, Colescott returned in the 1990s and 2000s to his loose, amorphous figurative style of the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s. Two later paintings on paper are shown in South Etna’s first gallery alongside the seminal Cairo period works. A Guy and The Great Beast (both 1994) feature nebulous Black men’s faces that almost entirely fill the picture plane. These distorted, monstrous faces are overlayed with a smaller, white, nude woman. “Colescott’s paintings can be seen as a chronicle of his feelings,” writes curator Lowery Stokes Sims, “which are inextricably caught up in his perceptions of himself as a Black man and as an artist in America today.”
The theme of the double in My Shadow also plays out in the dialectical relationship between South Etna’s two gallery spaces. The first gallery presents Colescott’s early free handed, loose and expressive figuration, while the second gallery features canonical examples of his cartoony, politically piquant yet satirical paintings. On both sides of these conceptual and stylistic coins, Colescott remains a vital provocateur whose work is more relevant than ever from the standpoint of our current socio-political conversations on race, gender and desire.
Text by curator Alison M. Gingeras.