Robert Colescott, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Upside Down Jesus and the Politics of Survival, 1987.
Robert Colescott (American, 1925-2009), Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Upside Down Jesus and the Politics of Survival, 1987, acrylic on canvas, Museum purchase: Robert Hale Ellis Jr. Fund for the Blanche Eloise Day Ellis and Robert Hale Ellis Memorial Collection, © 1987 Robert Colescott.
Robert Colescott, I Gets a Thrill, Too, When I Sees De Koo, 1978.
Robert Colescott (American, 1925-2009), I Gets a Thrill, Too, When I Sees De Koo, 1978, Acrylic on Canvas, 84 x 60 inches. © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Gift of Senator and Mrs. William Bradley, 1981.25The most notable apparition of Aunt Jemima is in Colescott’s 1978 appropriation of Willem de Kooning’s Woman I of 1952–53 (Museum of Modern Art), one of the icons of Abstract Expressionism. I Gets a Thrill Too When I Sees De Koo replaces the grimacing figure in the de Kooning with a mischievous grinning avatar of Aunt Jemima. But this painting is also a variation of a Pop Art riff: I Get a Thrill When I See Bill by Mel Ramos, where the head of the woman in the De Kooning is replaced with headshot of a contemporary 1970s model. Colescott navigates a path from the gestural distortion of the de Kooning, through the glamorized version by Ramos. Thus, his Aunt Jemima acquires the sexual gloss of the Ramos, even as Colescott circles back technically to the gestural figuration of the de Kooning and the 1950s and 60s figural trends from which he has developed his style. —Lowery Stokes Sims, Guest co-curator

Art and Race Matters

The Career of Robert Colescott

Feb 15, 2020 – May 17, 2020

Main Building, Floor 2

By Lowery Stokes Sims, Guest co-curator

Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott opened at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati (CAC) on September 20, 2019, and now comes to the Portland Art Museum. This exhibition is the first full retrospective of one of America’s most compelling and controversial artists. Having written about and curated the work of Robert Colescott over the past 40 years, I was thrilled when Raphaela Platow, director of the CAC, approached me about developing this project. I enlisted Matthew Weseley, an independent scholar who has been working on a monographic study of Colescott’s work, as co-curator. Together with our colleagues at the CAC, we embarked on a five-year journey through familiar territory and into new dimensions.

Robert Colescott (1925-2009) established his career in Portland with the support of gallery owner and philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer, then made his mark on the art scene in the 1970s with paintings that deconstructed well-known masterpieces of art history (such as Pablo Picasso’s 1907 Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the Museum of Modern Art, which Colescott painted in 1985) by black-facing some of the female figures. This provocative strategy challenged longstanding taboos about racial stereotyping while allowing Colescott to achieve his stated purpose to “interject blacks into art history.” As he transformed familiar images to forge new, unexplored social meanings and implications, Colescott became a pioneer in the reemergence of figuration in the 1970s and in the strategies of appropriation in the 1980s.

Despite its peerless pedigree, Colescott’s work continues to be mired in controversy because of both Colescott’s blunt, aggressive—even crude—gestural painting style and his provocatively transgressive examinations of race and gender. His work makes sense in the context of the raucous countercultural scene in the Bay Area of the 1960s and ’70s, as seen in the work of cartoonist R. Crumb and the funky West Coast figuration of Colescott’s cohorts such as Joan Brown, William Wiley, and Roy De Forest. But Colescott is particularly skillful at shocking us by dealing with the issues that we usually shy away from, or only speak of in secret, and then delivering what has been described as a “one-two punch” that forces us to grapple with the artistic, political, social, and historical meanings of his images. Therefore, the curators convened multiple meetings across the United States—in San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), and Tucson (where Colescott lived and worked), and at the CAC—to discuss the nature of Colescott’s work. Scholars, curators, artists, critics, community representatives, and CAC staff all offered unique interpretations and interactive approaches to the exhibition.

We know that, when the exhibition opens, it will be clear that Colescott’s work has never been more relevant than at this moment. Given the crisis of race relations, image management, and political manipulation in the current American—and global—landscape, Colescott’s perspectives on race, life, social mores, historical heritage, and cultural hybridity allow us a means—if we are up to the task—to forthrightly confront the state of culture and social relationships in the next decade.

Co-curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley, and organized by Raphaela Platow, the Contemporary Arts Center’s Alice & Harris Weston Director and Chief Curator. Curatorial coordination in Portland by Grace Kook-Anderson, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art.

Presenting sponsor of the Portland exhibition: The Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation. Major support of the exhibition has also been provided by the Henry Luce Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Richard Rosenthal; the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for the research phase of the exhibition and the exhibition itself; and The Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation for its support of the catalogue. The exhibition was also awarded a Sotheby’s Prize in 2018 in recognition of curatorial excellence and its exploration of an overlooked and under-represented area of art history.

Apr
10
Fri
In Dialogue: Satire in the Work of Robert Colescott
Apr 10 @ 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

In Dialogue is an occasional series of interdisciplinary, discussion-based sessions that explore art on view at the Museum in relation to works in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. In Spring 2020, we will take inspiration from ​Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott ​to consider timely and key exhibition themes that explore the dynamics between race and gender, as well as the function of satire within the work.

In an evening of improvisational performance and discussion with Broke Gravy, this In Dialogue considers the function of satire both within Colescott’s work and within daily life. Broke Gravy uses improv comedy and storytelling to discover truth between the blurry lines of the daily grind.

As three black men living in America, they utilize their unique voices to spark thoughtful conversations on and off comedy stages. Through an open and honest dialogue, they exchange their experiences with those of their audience—exploring deeper perspectives on comedy, relationships, and humanity.

Also, they’re funny AF.

Learn more about Broke Gravy at www.brokegravy.com.

Space is limited. Registration required.

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Apr
19
Sun
In Dialogue: A Question of Color
Apr 19 @ 2:00 pm – 4:30 pm
In Dialogue: A Question of Color

In Dialogue is an occasional series of interdisciplinary, discussion-based sessions that explore art on view at the Museum in relation to works in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. In Spring 2020, we will take inspiration from Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott to consider timely and key exhibition themes that explore the dynamics between race and gender, as well as the function of satire within the work.

Facilitated by Dr. Ethan Johnson, this In Dialogue will center discussion around the film, A Question of Color, and the ways in which colorism occurs within the Colescott exhibition. Ethan Johnson is an associate professor in and chair of the Black Studies Department in the School of Gender, Race and Nations at Portland State University.  He received his doctorate from the Social and Cultural Studies in Education Program at the University of California, Berkeley.  He has published in various journals such as Race, Ethnicity and EducationThe International Journal of Qualitative Studies in EducationSouls, Ethnography and Education and The Oregon Historical Quarterly.  He has also co-edited the book called Education and the Black Diaspora: Educational Perspectives, Challenges and Prospects.

He works across multiple fields of study related to the experiences of people of African descent: education, popular culture, race and racism, history and African Diaspora Studies.  Currently, he is working on a number of projects.  One examines the educational experiences of Afro-Latin@s in Spain and the other focuses on the significance of complexion and phenotype in the lives of Black males living in Portland for which he has an article coming out this year.  Professor Johnson is the host and organizer of the Black Bag Speaker Series whose mission is to create a space on campus in which scholars and/or activists doing work that relates to people of African descent in Portland and the nation can engage with the university and community.

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Apr
21
Tue
Art & Conversation: Art and Race Matters
Apr 21 @ 9:15 am – 11:30 am
Art & Conversation: Art and Race Matters @ Mark Building

Grace Kook-Anderson, the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art

Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Art and Race Matters

Join us the third Tuesday of every month for coffee followed by a lecture or film screening. Coffee at 9:15 a.m. and lecture at 10:15 a.m.

This is a free program and everyone is welcome.

Art & Conversation is made possible through the Marguerite and Harry Kendall Education Fund.

The following resources were created by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and generously shared. Please note that certain artworks and other elements will differ from the Portland Art Museum presentation of Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott.