Colescott & McGill: Exhibitions In Conversation

Arts & Culture

Pictured: Robert Colescott, 'The Wreckage of the Medusa,' 1978, Acrylic on canvas, 66 x 84 inches © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Credit: Ray Litman

One year after the murder of George Floyd and the summer of protests that followed, the Sarasota Art Museum offers a summer of further reflection on and examination of race, image, identity and class with a pair of exhibitions showcasing works from two of the late 20th century’s most controversial and subversive Black artists.

Entitled Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott and Charles McGill: In the Rough, each stands as an impressive exhibition on its own, from Colescott’s satirical reimaginings of the artistic canon to McGill’s violent deconstruction of the symbolism of the standard golf bag, but it’s the conversation that ensues from their pairing that elevates the experience.

“Both artists are talking about the same issues, but from a completely different orbit,” says Joe Lewis, artist and Sarasota Art Museum guest curator with In the Rough. “Colescott makes it possible for McGill to express himself the way he does. He lays out the roads.”

And so the experience begins on the first floor, where all of the seven massive gallery spaces are devoted to this first comprehensive retrospective of Colescott’s long career. 54 paintings, most of them large scale and taking full advantage of the museum’s high ceilings, take the viewer on a globe-hopping adventure through Colescott’s artistic development, watching the wry musings and profane humor blossom from cheeky background notes to a resounding chorus.

“He makes you laugh,” says Lewis. “And then something clicks and it’s not funny.”

As Colescott progressed as an artist and experienced more of the world, from Egypt to Italy to France and Cuba, his commentary on the Black experience in 20th century America became more prominent, biting and confident—but always smuggled under a sly sort of humor that winked as it twisted the knife. “The humor is the bait,” says Lewis. “The price you pay to get in.”

“Even though he was dealing with very serious issues,” he continues, “he framed them in this humorous environment that made those issues more accessible.” Whether a reimagining such as George Washington Carver Crossing The Delaware, replacing the first American president with the prominent black scientist and his shipmates with racial caricatures, or pointed commentary on sexual exploitation in something like American Beauty, Colescott uses the familiar and the comic to gain a foothold for more layered meaning.

Colescott’s work, in turn, serves as an ideological foothold for McGill’s work on the second floor, where the artist and golf instructor merged his two passions into a career that deconstructed what the artist describes as the racist and classist history of the game through the literal deconstruction and re-assembly of leather golf bags.

As a symbol of the divisions inherent to the game, the golf bag itself provides a prime example, being that literal burden which the golfer’s servant (read: caddy) must carry in order for his benefactor to play the game. And McGill rips, tears and shreds the bags to ribbons as he equally rends asunder the quaint and harmless façade of a game that too long remained a bastion of exclusion. 

“McGill’s take is something special, as is Colescott’s” says Lewis. “The two shows bookend each other and I am incredibly pleased with how well they connect. These issues are prominent today and these are ongoing conversations.”

However, he says, don’t let the seriousness of the subject matter preclude enjoyment of the art itself.

“The beauty usurps the politics.”

Currently on display at the Sarasota Art Museum, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott runs through October 31 and Charles McGill: In the Rough runs through November 21.

Pictured: Robert Colescott, 'The Wreckage of the Medusa,' 1978, Acrylic on canvas, 66 x 84 inches © 2021 The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Credit: Ray Litman

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