Venice Calling

Painter Robert Colescott and Poet Quincy Troupe Collaborate On A World-Class Project.
By Margaret Regan

ROBERT COLESCOTT HAS been rather busy since last June. That's when the 71-year-old Tucson painter learned he'd won the distinct honor of representing the United States at the 1997 Venice Biennale, the most prestigious of the international art fairs. Colescott is the first African-American artist to get a solo show at Venice, and the first U.S. painter to do so since Jasper Johns in the late '80s. (Cutting-edge media usually edge out painting when it comes time for the jury to pick artists. The 1995 winner was video installation artist Bill Viola.)

Colescott's planning on showing 25 major works in Venice and he's still at work on one of his large, richly colored acrylics on canvas.

"Many of the paintings were done this year," he reported by telephone last week from his home-cum-studio in the westside desert. "And others were painted over the last 10 years."

Right now, a large group of the works is showing at Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York, and the painter is planning the first of several trips to Venice.

"It's really terrible! I've got to go to Venice at least three times, but somebody's gotta do it." Plus, he'd just returned from a hectic 10-day trip to New York, where "all kinds of people wanted to talk to me." Now in his second year of retirement from teaching art at the UA, Colescott was also preparing for this weekend's visit from Quincy Troupe, a major American poet who's been enlisted to compose poetry about his paintings.

"Art is an interest I have besides music," said Troupe by telephone from his home in La Jolla, California. "I have a great art collection of contemporary paintings, about 200 pieces."

The poet and the painter have never met before, but their pairing seems inspired. Troupe, an unconventional African-American writer who is, at 53, a generation younger than Colescott, has "an impressive range, from great poems of political rage to poems celebrating black culture," said Alison Deming, director of the UA Poetry Center. A professor at UC San Diego, Troupe is co-author of a prize-winning autobiography of Miles Davis, editor of a volume of essays on James Baldwin, and author of five volumes of poetry. Avalanche, his most recent, is "a really wonderful, wild book."

In writing about another artist's etchings in one of his poems, Deming said, Troupe could be describing his own work: "a jambalaya stew of races, rhythms and languages."

Similarly, Colescott paints big, lush narrative acrylics on canvas, hard-hitting narrative works that travel across time and history. They make ironic use of imagery from pop culture and art history to skewer stereotypes of blacks (a 1975 painting, "Eat Dem Taters," reprises Van Gogh's famously grim "Potato Eaters" with a family of grinning minstrel blacks, happy in their poverty), to lampoon commercial culture, to decry oppression of all sorts. Though his complex work can't be reduced to a single interpretation, it's safe to say that one of Colescott's goals is to restore African-Americans to their legitimate place in the national consciousness.

"Words are important to Bob's work," said Mimi Roberts, the independent Santa Fe curator who proposed the Colescott show to the U.S. Biennale jury. "His paintings are narrative. The idea of the participation of a poet makes a lot of sense. It also honors Bob as an influence on younger artists, not only Afro-American, but artists all over the world." (A younger African-American photographer, Carrie Mae Weems, has been commissioned to take Colescott's official Biennale portrait.)

Troupe said he's never undertaken such a project before, though the artist José Bedia did a suite of paintings based on some of his poems. He didn't yet know exactly how he'd proceed.

"I have no idea yet about the process," said Troupe. "I'll see the images and my own feeling about them will give rise to whatever comes out."

Nor is it yet clear how the poems will mesh with the paintings in Venice. There will likely be readings, Roberts said, and perhaps an installation of Troupe's written words alongside Colescott's painted work.

Colescott said discussions are underway for a U.S. tour of the show following the Venice Biennale, which will run June through October 1997. There may even be a Tucson showing, but nothing's firm yet. In the meantime, sighed the painter, "I'm trying to find time to do my work."

Quincy Troupe will do a booksigning of Avalanche at The Book Mark, 5001 E. Speedway, from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday, December 7. Call 881-6350 for information. TW

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