Issue #23.44 :: 11/03/2010 - 11/09/2010
Quashie Offers Witty But Unflinching Racial Commentary

A review of Colin Quashie: Subjective Perceptions, on view at Benedict College’s Ponder Gallery through Dec. 10.

By Mary Bentz Gilkerson

Colin Quashie’s work is some of the most socially and politically engaged in the state, if not the region. The artist’s unflinching examination of the lingering influence of racism in contemporary American culture is witty and ironic, but definitely far from subtle in the message it conveys. While this might make his work too strong for some, it is work that needs to be made and needs to be seen.

The directness of Quashie’s approach and content makes the artist’s work controversial at times, so much so that getting a chance to see his work can be difficult. Subjective Perceptions, the first solo exhibition of Quashie’s work in Columbia, is on view at Benedict’s Ponder Fine Arts Gallery through Dec. 10. A reception will be held Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m.

Quashie lives in Charleston but is hardly a typical “Charleston artist.” The artist was born in London in 1963 and raised in the West Indies. His family immigrated to the United States when he was 6, and he grew up in Florida. After attending college for a short time, he joined the Navy working on submarines. He began actively pursuing his art career after his discharge in 1987. The challenging content of his work led to the censorship of an exhibition in 1995. Dropping art for two years, Quashie moved to the West Coast and started writing comedy for Mad TV. He began making art again but has continued writing for the film and television industry.

His interest in social and political engagement ties him to a long line of artists ranging from William Hogarth and Charles Daumier in the 19th century to contemporary painter Kara Walker. Like Walker, there is a sense of urgency to his social commentary that seems driven by the increased ease of image-powered communication today.

Like many contemporary artists, Quashie pulls imagery from pop culture in a way that goes directly back to Andy Warhol. Advertisements, package designs, billboards and coloring books all provide images as well as formats for works that use the language syntax of the media to address issues of race, gender and social equality — or, rather, inequality.

While his manipulation of the formal elements and the painting medium is similar to Warhol, Quashie’s conceptual framework is for the most part very different. Quashie takes Warhol’s examination of the impact of the media on our cultural mythology a step further, using media-based methods to dissect and deconstruct stereotypical views of cultural relationships.

This is precisely what makes his work so challenging not only to the average viewer, but to many art insiders as well. His imagery is very accessible, luring the viewer into a dialogue that then turns their preconceptions upside down. Images that are associated with comfort and ease are turned around to force a sense of unease.

His series of Coloring Book paintings use the innocent, child-like motif of the coloring book to make very strong social statements. In Whack, the viewer is presented with the typical outlined forms with colored marks scribbled across their surfaces, as if a small child has been happily coloring away. The images appears neutral, almost innocent, until the viewer looks closer and realizes that the painting addresses intra-racial as well as inter-racial violence. The piece makes it clear that Quashie is going to reveal and ridicule inequities wherever he finds them.

Cultural inconsistencies, especially in political correctness, unfortunately provide an almost unlimited array of topics for the artist to address. In BLACKBORED – Racialgebra the artist questions the sort of political correctness that led to the firing of a radio host for using the “N” word on air, but let the police in one urban area shoot three African-American suspects more than fifty times — without consequences.

The controversy Quashie’s work sometimes causes is not limited to predominately white institutions. The questions raised by his work challenge deeply held concepts of race and identity across racial divides. His work invites viewers to engage in necessary conversations rather than politely and unquestioningly sustaining the status quo.