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In our Face: “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickelene Thomas”

In promoting “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickelene Thomas,” the Seattle Art Museum asks these big questions: “Questioning History: Who authors history, who has power, who figures in art history?” Curator Catherina Manchanda selected large paintings by three generations of black artists to offer us some answers. Since history painting and museums are mostly the terrain of white people, this exhibition is in our white faces, telling us some of what we don’t know.

Robert Colescott: George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975. Acrylic on canvas 84 × 108 in., from the Seattle Art Museum.

Robert Colescott is the oldest of the three artists, born in 1935, he died in 2009. Schooled in California, but profoundly shaped by Fernand Léger (with whom he studied), Egypt (where the artist taught), and the Civil Rights Movement, Colescott determined to turn white American history upside down. His iconic work George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from American History Textbook, 1975 repopulated the famous painting by Emmanuel Leutze with black face stereotypes led by the famous scientist. It is Colescott’s manifesto!

His later paintings continue to redefine both history and art history. The museum has recently acquired Les Demoiselles d’Alabama Vestidas (dressed), 1985, with its reversal of the original skin colors of the well known Picasso painting. Picasso’s women included prostitutes and a male client on the left; Colescott replaces him with a white woman who may be joining the brothel. Indeed Colescott’s paintings emphasize not only rewriting history, but skin colors, he frequently includes a whole range of tones from white to dark brown as in the series of three paintings here Knowledge of the Past is Key to the Future from the mid 1980s. He features a central figure, Columbus, Matthew Hensen (polar explorer with Peary), or Jesus Christ, then surrounds them with a galaxy of people, some identifiable, some standing for a category, all with contrasting skin colors. These people never look at us. Colescott chose to be more complex in his later works, but his purpose never wavers.

Kerry James Marshall pulls no punches. His very, very black people look right at us, challenging us to look away, to avoid their gaze. There is no nuance on skin color here, it becomes a parody of the idea of “black.” Marshall (born 1955), who grew up in Birmingham Alabama and the famous LA Watts in a housing project of the 1960s, saw the contradiction of Utopian projects and nightmare day to day realities. The series focused on in this show Souvenirs, from the mid 1990s, pays homage to those who died in the Civil Rights Movement, expanding the pantheon beyond the well known to include many others. The second series here is Vignette, homages to Rococo love images, in a decorative style, but looking closer, we see an improbable image of a hefty man raising a large black woman over his head. Odd romance this, and surrounding the figures are subtle and not so subtle references to black power. (Vignette as a series includes many other works that are more explicit about both racism and romance.

Kerry James, Marshall School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Acrylic and glitter on unstretched canvas, 107 7/8 × 157 7/8 in., from the collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Marshall’s School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012, a partner to an earlier work by De Style, 1993 of a barber shop allows us white people into a place that is almost a sanctuary of black power. Here is real life, real culture, real people. And it is the white ideal that in the end is a mirage, an odd phenomenon, as the small children point out in School of Beauty. Here people are living their lives on their own terms.

The stunning conclusion of the exhibition, the paintings of Mickalene Thomas, dazzle us with their surfaces, scale, and powerhouse representations of women. Thomas born in 1971 brings us up to the present of black power and assertiveness. Thomas embeds rhinestones on her surfaces that serve to keep us at a distance, even as her huge women seem to take over our space. In Thomas’ redo of Manet’s famous painting as Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, three women look at us and beyond us, we are not seen. Thomas’ work requires time to explore; she creates landscapes of patterns and styles, mixing photography, and painting, combining the geometry of “white male” modernism with decorative fabrics. In fact just about anything goes in her work, she has no interest in setting any limits on herself or her subjects.

I am sure that the Black Lives Matter movement had something to do with the framing of the exhibition. Of course, the Seattle Art Museum has shown other black artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Nike Cave (that amazing sound suit designer) and in the (subsidized for the showing of black artists) Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight Gallery (still curated by Sandra Jackson-Dumont—the only African American curator at SAM who is now based at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) we saw cutting edge artists like Titus Kaphar, La Toya Ruby Frazier, Theaster Gates, Matika Wilbur and currently “Sondra Perry, Eclogue for (In)habitability.”

But, the museum can answer the question “who has power” by continuing to vigorously integrate its collection, its staff, its audience and its programs. (For starters, admission keeps most people away, the prices are astronomical and special exhibitions are still half price on those free first Thursdays).

~Susan Noyes Platt

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