Robert Colescott

Strange Fruit: Arvie Smith’s seductive provocations at PAM

The Portland artist's bold paintings about race in the museum's APEX series rub together attraction and repulsion as they play with stereotypes

When Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol’s mercilessly beautiful song about a lynching, at Café Society in Greenwich Village in 1939 and into the ’40s, it became something of a benediction: she would close her show with it, the waiters would stop serving, the room would darken, no encore followed. It was if the audience had entered a place at once blasphemous and holy, a hollow where time stopped in the presence of the unutterable, and the thing itself was dirty but the memorization of it, the acknowledgement of its awful reality, was somehow purifying: we have seen evil, and felt its power, and by facing it we have somehow made it lesser and ourselves more.

Arvie Smith, "Strange Fruit," 1992, oil on canvas, 92 x 70 inches, collection of the artist.

Arvie Smith, “Strange Fruit,” 1992, oil on canvas, 92 x 70 inches, collection of the artist.

Arvie Smith’s 1992 painting of the same title and theme performs some of the same functions in his current APEX Northwest artists series show at the Portland Art Museum, and it also acts as an oversize calling card for the other nine paintings in the exhibition. Grandly scaled at 92 x 70 inches, it overwhelms viewers with the hyperreality of an American scene: the lynching of a nearly naked black man by a gang of white men whose muscles ripple beneath the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. Like an American Jesus on a Southern cross, the black man lets his head slump sideward in defeat; the rope slung over the tree limb and tied around his neck seems almost as thick as his arm. The two men stringing him up seem almost to strut with pride. Near the bottom right corner, at the level where a dog might look out, two malevolent red-rimmed eyes stare from slits in a Klan hood. Beneath the robe of one of the Klansmen, a pair of very contemporary, everyday casual athletic shoes sticks out, catapulting the time frame on beyond Michael Jordan. 

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Conduit’s last dance, Russian lost love, the color of race, chamber tales

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

For more than 20 years Conduit was a vital link – in many ways, the vital link – in Portland’s chain of contemporary dance organizations. A home base for some of the city’s most creative dancemakers, it was also the place that visiting choreographers and dancers made their temporary work home when they were in town. Major work and vital experiments were created here by a host of talented people. Mary Oslund, Tere Mathern, Linda K. Johnson, Gregg Bielemeier, V. Keith Goodman, Jim McGinn, Katherine Longstreth: the list goes on and on, creating a tapestry of the tale of a very large and significant chapter in the history of the city’s dance.

It’s all history now, or will be as of July 23, when Conduit hangs up its hat for good, at least in its current form. The party’s over – but not before an actual party, A Wake for Conduit, fills the Ford Building for a final celebration this Wednesday, July 13. Bring your stories, and put on your dancing shoes. Jamuna Chiarini has the story for ArtsWatch readers.

There Mathern's "Gather: a dance about convergence," performed in 2012 in Conduit's original home in the Pythian Building. Photo: Gordon Wilson

There Mathern’s “Gather: a dance about convergence,” performed in 2012 in Conduit’s original home in the Pythian Building. Photo: Gordon Wilson

 


 

A TALE OF RUSSIAN LOVE LOST. Bruce Browne reviews Portland Opera’s new production of Eugene Onegin, which continues in the relatively cozy Newmark Theatre through July 26. Tchaikovsky’s opera, based on Alexander Pushkin’s extraordinarily popular Russian verse novel, is re-set in this production to the late years of the Soviet Union and the early years of the post-Soviet era, a switch that works for Browne: “The reason this production works so well is that the actors/singers embraced the change.” He particularly praises Jennifer Forni as Tatiana, the country miss who’s spurned by the cold title character: “Forni’s voice has the power and brilliance of a roman candle, and yet is never pushed, always in control. She has the best messa di voce (getting softer and louder on one note) I’ve heard in a long time. And she convincingly brought to life the facets of her teenage angst, brought about attempting to deal with Onegin.”

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Breaking through: Robert Colescott and JD Perkin

Laura Russo Gallery shows some post-breakthrough art by Robert Colescott and J.D. Perkins

There’s a tantalizing little glimpse of Robert Colescott’s work at Laura Russo Gallery right now. Colescott (1925-2009) was an important American painter, representing the United States in the Venice Biennale in 1997. He is probably best known for his satirical paintings of the 1970s in which he, as a black artist, lampooned racist caricature stereotypes in works such as George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook, 1975, a take off on Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, by Emanuel Leutze.

In a 1999 interview, Colescott said of these overt paintings, “it’s about white perceptions of black people. And they may not be pretty. And they may be stupid…it’s satire. It’s the satire that kills the serpent, you know.” These blatant works were very controversial, and 40 years later they are still powerful for their imagery. But we should not overlook the idea that they are also powerful because they are fine paintings.

Robert Colescott, "Call to the Valley", 1965, oil on canvas, 77.5 x 58.75 inches/Courtesy Laura Russo Gallery

Robert Colescott, “Call to the Valley”, 1965, oil on canvas, 77.5 x 58.75 inches/Courtesy Laura Russo Gallery

There are none of the 1970s works in the current small show. There is a big painting from 1965, a couple of big works from the 1990s, and a few works on paper. The 1965 painting, from a time when he taught at Portland State University, Call to the Valley, (about six and a half -by-five feet) is sort of a regular painting for its day. There are ambiguous figures in an ambiguous landscape. Call to the Valley was painted when Colescott was 40 years old. It speaks of a painter dealing with then current painting issues, but not yet finding a strong individual voice. It seems that the subject matter of the 1970s gave Colescott his individualism—so he could paint like he really meant it.

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