A black woman nurses an adult white man dressed in a suit. He’s rubbing her thigh and sucking her large pink nipple. The woman is dressed in “loose woman garb” — a leopard-print dress and bright fuchsia heels.
Next to them, a blond white woman, cartoonish, looks away while holding a black baby. The child is staring adoringly at her, his mouth open with hunger. Another black baby lies in a basket on the floor. His mouth too is open with hunger.
In the background, a father, mother and baby are intimately close, watching the disturbing American scene. Apparently, the family is in Africa, as symbolized by the stark brown and purple lands around them. The baby wears a leopard suit and may be the mother-whore as an infant.
The narrative commentary on sex, race, history and stereotypes is from artist Robert Colescott’s “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: the Original.” The old adage used in the title is the basis for a small series of Colescott oil paintings displayed at the G.R. N’Namdi Gallery in the Cultural Center, along with several of the 79-year-old Arizona artist’s paper drawings.
Using vibrant colors applied with thick strokes of paint, Colescott shows his mastery of the Expressionist style while giving it a kick of abstraction. Yet the paintings are historical narratives that often require some knowledge of history to translate, for instance, references to such African-American icons as Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie.
In “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Love Makes the World Go Round,” Colescott references a Marilyn Monroe movie, big red Man Ray lips and Niagara Falls in his illustration of a black man who is passionately bound, literally chained, to a white woman. He’s looking at her with such fury it appears he wishes to hurt her. She is oblivious in her state of passion.
In this way, Colescott uses vivid colors and bold symbols of people and places in what is, at its heart, a scathing visual commentary on the history of Africans in American society. Common themes include the animal nature of sex, black men in relationships with white women, and stereotypes that have haunted the African-American community.
To observe Colescott’s work is to read a visual poem; with all their visceral beauty, the paintings nevertheless demand thought from the viewer. Despite the harsh realities in his works, Colescott’s persistent sense of humor shines through. Colescott is brash without being confrontational.
“He’s not trying to shock people or make one group feel bad or another group feel better,” says Kemba N’Namdi, gallery director. “He’s more like, this is history, and I’m going to depict it. It’s serious subject matter, but it makes you happy. That’s what I love about his work.”
The gallery has nine of Colescott’s paintings from the “Knowledge of the Past” series, done in the 1980s and 1990s.
To learn more about Colescott — from his family’s pilgrimage from New Orleans to California to his own disappointment at learning that his desire to become an international embassy worker couldn’t happen because he was black — check out Paul Karlstrom’s 1999 interview with the artist for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, at artarchives.si.edu/oralhist/colesc99.htm.
Gazin’ in the grass
Walk into Tangent Gallery and quickly you’ll get sucked into Denise Whitebread Fanning’s installation, a sprawling work that fills the white space of the gallery’s main room. Observers unwittingly become part of Fanning’s piece — as helplessly constrained voyeurs — an interaction devised by the artist.
Her piece, titled what should we do?, is a stinging commentary on America’s apathetic, suburban society that voyeuristically observes problems, feigning concern, yet stands inactive, doing nothing to help.
Fanning’s installation consists of 28 life-size, papier-mâché men standing around a large swath of grass. The off-white, bland figures are craning their necks to watch the action on the lush green sod, where several real-looking birds are lying still, as if dead, while other motorized birds are shaking violently, as if they’ve been impaled and their bodies are racked with seizure. The creatures are startlingly lifelike, like chickens with thick fuzzy feathers.
Their convulsions create a palpable feeling of tension — observers are moved with the desire to help the struggling animals, or at least to stop the irritating shaking and electrical sound.
Meanwhile, the human figures stand around the grass, staring blankly at the birds. Some seem concerned, or curious. Some have eyeballs; to look into their faces is utterly creepy, like entering a still frame of Night of the Living Dead.
The figures appear to be moving (though, of course, they cannot), like dumbstruck zombies toward the grass. Observers become one of the papier-mâché group, moving toward the grass, staring, puzzled, inactive.
Not a single figure in the installation moves to stand on the grass or help the birds.
Fanning, a former College for Creative Studies teacher, often uses birds and life-size human forms to comment on human relationships.
The war in Iraq stimulated her piece, what should we do? she says.
“It’s about watching things go down around you and not knowing your responsibility to them, or how to react, or what you can do if the responsibility is yours,” says Fanning.
The birds, symbolizing the human spirit, “have a fragility or helplessness that we can relate to on a level, without them being human,” she says.
The piece also has a group-dynamic thing going on, like “a crowd watching an accident. Everyone flocked to the World Trade Center to see the end result, but there’s nothing you can do by seeing it. Yet you want to be a part of it somehow,” she says.
It’s this arrested emotion that Fanning captures beautifully in her work. Her piece is so alive the figures seem animated and familiar. Were they to begin to cry, it would not be a great surprise.