Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted October 12, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia. The essay is contained in the fully illustrated exhibition catalogue Myths and Metaphors: The Art of Leo Twiggs, ISBN 0-915977-52-4, which was published in connection with an exhibit of the same name held at the Georgia Museum of Art January 30, 2004 - March 28, 2004. We express appreciation to Bonnie Ramsey of the Georgia Museum of Art for bringing the essay to our attention. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Opposition, Reconciliation, and Synthesis in the Art of Leo Twiggs: Issues of Metaphor and Meaning in Post-Colonial Expression

by Frank Martin

 

Convincing arguments may be presented regarding the essential value of art as a basis of human civilization because of its necessary synthesis of perception and experience into communicative and communicable phenomena. The art of Leo Twiggs, however, achieves more than a mere synthesis of perception and experience; instead, his works harmonize highly disparate aesthetic and cultural elements into a coherent and transcendent unity of expression. Thus, a salient feature in the oeuvre of this celebrated artist, educator, and academic is the demonstration, in his works, of an uncanny ability to reconcile a multiplicity of cultural traditions with integrity, while simultaneously offering insightful commentary regarding aesthetic, ethical, and social issues that are translated, with understated power, through his unique experience.

Twiggs's introspective images formulate a vital commentary upon our common human condition and offer the possibility of an appealing dialogue among vastly diverse constituencies of potential viewers. Whether a conservative descendant of the Confederate veteran, a radical socialist/political leftist, or an Afro-centrist "Black Power" enthusiast, all may discover equal merit in his art despite polemical disparities among their respective world views. This single communicative power intrinsic to Twiggs's work presents multiple opportunities for the enrichment of our collective experience, and is a compelling source of fascination for any audience receptive to the expressive possibilities of visual culture. Thus, this communicative capability serves as a rationale for a meaningful consideration of the impressive creative contributions of this American original. Indeed, Twiggs's artistic works find resonance not only in the American South but among any and all manifestations of creative dialogue, creolized cultural syntheses, and considerations of the aftermath of the post-colonial Afro-European diaspora.[1]

An American artist of African descent, as well as an educator and scholar of note, Twiggs has chosen to work in the craft-associated medium of batik, although he was formally trained in the Euro-centrist, academic, representationalist tradition and studied the intellectual legacy of the European avant-garde. As a consequence, the appearance of simplicity and romance in his art provides, with an insinuating subtlety, evidence of his highly-varied credentials while maintaining an integral, American, African, and African American cultural integrity in a precarious balance of harmonious, unified, expressive complexity and equilibrium. [2] In a single work, Twiggs may present Southern regional themes, allude to a realm of intuition, magic, and traditional African religious elements, offer autobiographical information, and evoke, without effort, an aesthetic linkage to the most advanced aspects of Abstract Expressionism.

In assessing the evolution of Twiggs's creative intricacy, one must acknowledge the powerful conceptual influence of his instructor, mentor, and friend, Arthur Rose (Figure 1), a painter and sculptor, who also navigated an aesthetic tightrope of figuration versus abstraction, and who eventually moved into the realm of assemblage and painted sculpture, concentrating primarily upon innovative, often whimsical three-dimensional works of rich compositional complexity. Witnessing the continuous creative experimentation by Rose provided a significant model for Twiggs, whose professional career began in the early 1960s, but some of whose most innovative, experimental works appear in the late 1990s, stretching into the new millennium, such as the batik assemblage Birth of the Blues (1996-2003, Cat. nos. 25-28), discussed below. [3]

Twiggs prefigures this penchant for multivalent communication in his art in an early oil, entitled Watermelons (1961, Cat. no. 1). In this canvas, the artist demonstrates a strong predisposition toward compositional daring and innovation; the angular, zigzag pattern of the perfectly placed watermelon wedges creates a compelling sense of visual tension, brilliantly counterbalanced by the angled verticality of the knife embedded in the flesh of one slice. The sensuality of this work, with its implicit sexual metaphor, holds our interest despite what could be considered either a rather banal or a highly political subject, due to the role of the watermelon as a standard feature of the Jim Crow image of the African American. [4] However, here, this motif is intended as a commentary upon the infusion within the idiom of still-life representations in the Western tradition of politicized regionality. The watermelon, a summer fruit, traditionally grown in the South, generally appeared as an exotic food in European still-life depictions and as an allusion to warmer climes, thereby suggesting the colonialist agenda of dispersal and commerce. In this work, the image retains its Southern and specifically American contextual connotations: that is, its particular association with the image of the African American, and with Southern experience, while it simultaneously references a painterly homage to the style of the Post-Impressionists, particularly proto-Cubist Paul Cézanne. [5] Thus, in this early work, Twiggs titillates with a politicized, popular cultural allusion to the use of the watermelon in defining an aspect of African Americana, entertains us with a visual sexual metaphor, and, concurrently, offers a tongue-in-cheek lesson in the history of art. This multivalent and allusive technique is entirely characteristic of his conceptual approach in his oeuvre.

In another composition, entitled Red Thing (1964, Cat. no. 2), Twiggs's synthesis of experience and perception incarnates the effects of his study at New York University and profoundly reflects the influence of his mentor and teacher, Hale Woodruff, with whom he would come to share certain signature compositional conventions. Foremost among these characteristic compositional tools are the reliance upon a rich, subtle tertiary palette, the predisposition to subdivide the canvas into a complex network of geometric planes upon which organic shapes or symbols may be superimposed, and a highly articulated working of the proper left side of the picture plane (the painters' right). [6] If Red Thing is compared with Woodruff's Celestial Gate (1953, Figure 2), for example, certain correspondences in approach appear. Woodruff's introduction of Abstract Expressionist concepts into the pantheon of Twiggs's expressive motifs, especially the employment of emotive color and vibrant manipulation of form, left a lasting impression upon his student and continually resurfaced, interpolated within Twiggs's works, for decades after their encounter.

The compositional strength of Twiggs's works and crucial role of the Woodruff-influenced Expressionistic approaches to the integration of color in Twiggs's images thus begs the question, ".... is Leo Twiggs in fact an abstractionist merely masquerading as a figurative artist? or is he committed to the narrative power of the representation of the human figure as an intrinsic part of his expressive character?" For the purposes of this assessment, it would appear that while Twiggs's mode of expression is clearly figurative by choice, his works suggest that he may best be understood as employing the human figure primarily as a means to investigate organic shape and compositional language. It may be for these reasons that his renditions of the figure generally assume the form of shadowy, anonymous, virtually faceless suggestions of humanity, apparently presented without naturalistic specificity. However, despite their appearance of intuitive insinuation and anonymity, these figures who populate the Twiggs ambient are, in fact, highly specific, evocative, emotive images of the artist's past: his family, his siblings, his grandmother, mother, father, and other powerful figures who dwell in the subconscious realm. In short, they are psychological and emotional constructions, as well as elements in the artist's material reality. Yet, Twiggs's formalist and compositional preoccupations morph such psychic dramatis personae into functioning as universal, generic, even decorative motifs and documentation of his specific experience.

 

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