An art exhibit just opened at the Chicago Cultural Center, and it’s accompanied by a notice. Besides mature content and nudity, some of the paintings use stereotypes to criticize racism and sexism in American culture.
So, fair warning – artist Robert Colescott didn’t fire any punches.
Marc Vitali: The colorful canvases defy expectations. A 1980 painting shows Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – with their races reversed. The images provoke. And reveal. And resist the easy answers.
We spoke with the curator from her home in Baltimore. She told us about the first time she saw Robert Colescott’s paintings in the 1970s.
Lowery Stokes Sims, co-curator: I looked at them and I was like, “Oh. My. God. ”The impact of them was so immediate because I looked at them and immediately saw the playfulness of the paintings and really relate to them.
Going in and seeing these so naughty, satirical, and humorous paintings – but at the same time slapping you in the face – was probably one of the most revealing moments of my life.
Vitali: An autobiographical painting depicts the relocation of Colescott’s parents from New Orleans to California. Colescott was a WWII veteran and traveled widely. He studied with Fernand Léger in France in the 1950s and spent much of the 1960s in Egypt. He was the first African-American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. The curator was a friend of the artist.
Sims Stokes: Bob was one of the most literate artists I knew in terms of history, but he also had this unique ability to translate that knowledge into very impactful images. There are often visual puns that you really have to listen to. Titles like “Colored TV” play both on the fact of the colorization of images on television but also on the lack of representation of blacks.
Vitali: The late artist made the news earlier this year when the Lucas Museum paid $ 15 million for a painting depicting George Washington Carver crossing the Delaware. This painting is not in this exhibition, but a first sketch of it is.
Before his death in 2009, Robert Colescott had influenced a young generation of political artists. His own influences were numerous.
Daniel Schulman of the Chicago Cultural Center: Colescott was interested in popular illustration, comics, cartoons, Hollywood movies, advertising – the kind of image bombardment that we experience in culture.
It’s very complex, he speaks to you in a way full of irony.
Sims Stokes: And you sort of recognize certain elements. So that might make you laugh, but then you realize, what are you laughing at?
Vitali: To accompany the show, the Department of Cultural Affairs presents a comedy evening hosted by actress Melissa DuPrey.
Melissa DuPrey, actor and activist: I frame him like, he was the Dave Chappelle of that time through art. It’s so present and in your face that you can’t look away. You cannot ignore it.
It’s layered and it shakes, and I think it’s like the most interesting part of his job is it’s like ‘oh, that’s not supposed to be there’.
Vitali: Chicago’s cultural hub is as busy as it has been in two years – with the Chris Ware comic book exhibit; galleries dedicated to the underground magazine Lumpen on the occasion of its 30th anniversary; and Hi-Buddy, a boutique that features local artists and small makers.
In addition to these exhibitions, there is this rare retrospective of the work of Robert Colescott. We asked the curator what was the best way to approach paintings.
Sims Stokes: I just encourage people to watch carefully, resist immediate reactions, try to figure out what you are reacting to if it’s more negative, and see if it’s warranted. And sort of see if there isn’t something you can relate to in what he’s trying to tell you in his paintings.
The exhibition is entitled “Art and Race Matter: The Career of Robert Colescott”. It just opened at the Cultural Center, and it’s free. And that comedy night that we mentioned is Monday, so if you’re around, it’s going until 9:30 p.m.