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Robert Colescott at the New Museum


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Deserving of its own thread in my view as it's easily the show of the year so far for me.

Let's say it: I had never heard of this guy. African American painter, died 2009. Speaks for itself.

The show fills a floor of the New Museum, room after room of (mainly) huge acrylic canvases bursting with color. Starts with some homages to his masters, including his direct mentor Leger. Then he finds his own groove in paintings that deal with serious topics (the show is called "Art and Race Matters") while frequently being hilarious. When did I last burst out laughing in a gallery reading the title of a painting. It happened here more than once -- "The Judgment of Paris," for example, and "The Wreck of the Medusa."

Colescott tackles racial stereotypes head on. "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware" is a pastiche of the famous painting of Washington, and it packs just about every absurd Black stereotype you can imagine into that little boat with Carver standing above them as their absolute refutation.

The paintings are funny and sexy. You can play a puzzle game with "Bad Habits," counting how many supposed bad habits are reproduced in the picture. Drinking, smoking and gambling, sure, but don't miss dessert, French fries and masturbation too.

The series of paintings I most want to see again is the "Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future" series. Creating his own universe of symbols, the theme of these works seem clear: the painful and fraught challenge, but absolute necessity, of racial reconciliation. But the details are overwhelming and often moving, from the compassion shown to an enslaved person to the literally black and white Christ figure. Many of the references are obvious, some (to me) less so, but enlightening. Not only did I not know Colescott, I don't recall ever hearing about Matthew Henson. As I walked through these galleries, I kept thinking of Blake: "Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten and the slave grinding at the mill."

But there are punchlines: the drawings in the last gallery, gleefully filthy. Wait till you see the boy with his finger in the dyke.

This is an unbelievable experience.

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