|Robert Colescott, “Pygmalion, 1987, acrylic and oil on canvas, 90 x 114 inches, courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection|
Saturday, October 22, 2016
30 Americans at Tacoma Art Museum Part II
Published in the Weekly Volcano, Oct. 20, 2012
I reviewed 30 Americans in this space two weeks ago. With 45 works from 30 of the best African American artists since the 1970s, this exhibition needs more than one column. So here’s part two:
One of the more impressive paintings I did not touch on in my first review is Robert Colescott’s “Pygmalion,” a large painting at nine-and-a-half feet in length and seven-and-a-half feet in height. Colescott’s interpretation of the Greek myth (upon which the play by George Bernard Shaw was based) has an interesting twist. The sculptor, Pygmalion, is a black man with gray hair and a heavy gray beard, identified as a self-portrait of the artist (or it could also be a caricature of Frederick Douglass; Colescott’s cartoon style leave a lot to the imagination). The sculpture of the beautiful woman which the mythological sculptor created and then fell in love with is usually depicted in white marble. Here she is presented as a Black woman — not the alluring nude with no arms, that’s the Venus de Milo, also depicted as a Black woman — but the woman in the flower-patterned house dress Pygmalion is dancing with. His expression is angry or intense, not loving. The other figures in this crowded scene all appear as everyday people in everyday situations. Some might even be viewed as stereotypical.
It is difficult if not impossible to read the artist’s meaning. Nevertheless, I love this painting. I like its exuberance and energy and bold use of color, and I am fascinated by its ambiguity.
Speaking of Frederick Douglass look-a-likes, Rashid Johnson’s black-and-white photograph “The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Thurgood)” pictures a handsome Black man in suit and tie surrounded by swirls of smoke. The title refers to Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice. I’m not sure that I get the meaning, but it is a dramatic photograph.
A striking photo with a similar appearance is Hank Willis Thomas’s “Who Can Say No to a Gorgeous Brunette?” — a part of his “B®randed” series, which critiques the advertising industry by presenting twists on the types of images often seen in ads. Of this series Thomas said, “I believe that … advertising’s success rests on its ability to reinforce generalizations about race, gender, and ethnicity, which can be sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying, but which at a core level reflect the way culture views itself or its aspirations.” Pictured in this photo is a beautiful, strong, Black woman with a sad expression and a huge Afro that blends into the background with a strong use of chiaroscuro. The viewer is asked to contemplate her image in light of the title and with advertising imagery in mind.
Kara Walker asks viewers to think about the history of slavery with her mural-size (eight-by-55 feet) frieze of silhouetted, cut-out cartoon figures dancing. They are designed to illustrate the old Stephan Foster minstrel song, “Camptown Ladies.” The frieze presents the style of demeaning images of Negroes that were popular during the time of minstrel shows. The contrast of black figures against the white wall and the rhythmical movement draws the viewer into a deceptively lighthearted visualization of a history of horror.
Many of the paintings, photos and sculptures in this show employ irony and insightful references to history and the art of the past in order to comment of the realities of racial relations then and now. It is a powerful show that should be perused slowly, in depth, and often.
Tacoma Art Museum, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Jan. 15, 2017, $15, third Thursday free 10 a.m.-8 p.m., 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma, http://www.tacomaartmuseum.org/