A seminal example from the pinnacle of Colescott’s output, Garden Spot powerfully demonstrates the variety of sources and influences within the artist’s life and career that have shaped his impressive body of work. Born in Oakland, California in 1925, Colescott studied European Modernism at the University of California at Berkeley before traveling to Paris in 1949 to study with Fernand Léger; indeed, the influence of Léger’s modernist figuration is readily apparent within the chaotic yet highly structured composition of the present work, recalling such paintings as Les Grand Plongeurs Noirs (The Big Black Divers) of 1944, or Les constructeurs au cordage (Builders with Rope) of 1950. Upon returning to the United States in 1950, however, Colescott found that Abstract Expressionism had firmly taken hold; dissatisfied with the narrow narrative scope offered by abstraction, Colescott would spend the next several decades developing his own, highly individualized artistic syntax. While Colescott arrived at his signature figuration and imagery by the late 1960s, it was not until the 1980s that he hit upon the virtuosic painterly intensity which distinguishes Garden Spot, alongside the other paintings of this period, as exceptional within his oeuvre. Scholar Lowery S. Sims describes, “The 1980s mark a turning point in Colescott’s stylistic development. He continues the exploration of familiar themes, but with a new assurance that renders his compositions no less pungent, but less urgent. His palette becomes richer and deeper in tonality, and these works verge dangerously close to beautiful.” (Exh. Cat., San Jose Museum of Art, Robert Colescott: A Retrospective, 1975—1986, 1987, p. 7) A powerful demonstration of Colescott’s remarkable abilities as both painter and narrator, Garden Spot testifies to the emphatic graphic force which has, over the past several decades, distinguished him as amongst the most influential and significant figurative artists of his generation.
Bursting from the canvas in a melee of vibrant forms and sumptuous painterly marks, the variegated figures of Garden Spot appear to be in constant motion, as if Colescott’s characters have rebelled against the inherent stasis of their positions. The centrifugal composition is structured around the entwined duo at the heart of the painting: scantily clad in a scarlet bikini, the woman leans into her brawny companion, embracing him as he raises one muscled arm to strike a heroic pose reminiscent of classical Olympians. The lurid crimson and neon yellow of the pair’s respective swimming costumes offset the rich ebony tones of their skin, which Colescott has rendered with extraordinary painterliness and depth. Draped across the man’s left arm, the luxuriant folds of a leopard-patterned beach blanket do not quite obscure an assortment of urban detritus below, while above, a rosy cloud resolves to form a heart around the figures’ heads, infusing the composition with the heady hedonism of a Rococo romantic allegory. The stoic gazes of the two central figures are in stark contrast to the expressive faces of the figures which encircle them: in the upper left, a basketball player grins triumphantly towards his unseen hoop, while in the opposite corner, an indistinct huddle of figures both black and white cast anxious looks towards the viewer. Completing the discrete narratives unfolding within Garden Spot is the ominous vignette at bottom left: there, a black man turns to face the inevitable shot from a blue-eyed, blonde-haired figure in the fore who, with grim intention, aims his silvery pistol at the target clearly depicted on the former’s back. Densely layered one upon the other, these figures visually enact the tense and tenuous relationships between genders, races, and classes which defined the cultural dilemmas and events of Colescott’s day; simultaneously highly familiar and distinctly uncanny, his characters serve as cartoonish allegories for complex social issues, allowing the viewer to explore difficult, even uncomfortable inquiries via charged figuration. Underscoring Colescott’s incisive analysis, a neat border of painstakingly collaged dollar bills encircles Garden Spot, their familiar iconography serving as both enclosure and support for the artist’s potent societal critique.
The world Colescott depicts within Garden Spot is one of searing dichotomies—between tragedy and comedy, male and female, black and white, past and present. Yet within the painting, these acute juxtapositions are blurred, making distinct opposites more multidimensional and intricate than previously assumed. While Colescott’s pastiche of sketches illustrates individual stories and occurrences, each narrative ultimately unites to form a complex depiction of African American subjectivity: his figures are not mere placeholders, but are activated as objects of desires, as hometown sports heroes, as victims and victors, feared and fearsome, hurt and hopeful. Within Garden Spot, the viewer is lured into Colescott’s vibrant world by the overpowering formal strength of the painting itself, the richly painted forms so urgently potent as to almost leap off the canvas; once inside, he finds himself inextricably tangled in interactions, relationships, and performances as yet unknown or, indeed, even imagined. Subverting conventional social, cultural, and artistic narratives alike, Garden Spot is an enduring testament, not only to the singular potency which characterizes Colescott’s distinctive graphic vernacular, but to the extraordinary contribution he has made to the development of Contemporary American painting.
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