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:



 

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In this spectral world, where one thing is often symbolic of another, through the skillful use of metaphor and metonymy, Twiggs's works seductively intrigue the spectator into a sometimes deceptive zone of comfort, incorporating a subtlety of understatement while often considering issues of poverty, disenfranchisement, and social or cultural ills that menace the sanctity of the human family. Among other implied subjects we may discern assessments of the legacy of enslavement and the trauma of its survival, the transmission of cultural traditions, especially vestigial cultural echoes of the African diaspora, shared experience, human triumph over natural disaster as a unifying agency, as well as the organic evolution of culture.[7] These rather serious subjects do not intrude aggressively upon the sensibilities of the spectator but are instead contextual, or sub-textual, offering ample opportunity for interpretation or avoidance as the spectator may choose, yet are quietly, insistently, ever-present, awaiting discovery and revelation. Although we may calmly examine a Twiggs work that offers an appearance of "safety," for these images are aesthetically pleasing and often picturesque, the surface considerations function merely as an introduction to a world of layered possibilities. Beyond the obvious, often mundane subjects Twiggs presents, and beneath the rich colors and frequently daring formal and compositional sophistication, may lurk meanings within meanings, cloaked in veneers of what easily could be characterized as "Southern charm." Yet, this multivalent layering of meaning is much more than a simple device used for political expediency, that is, more than the muted voice of a marginalized Southern [black] political commentary. Vital social criticism containing restrained elements of political intrigue may be offered in a Twiggs image with the visual equivalent of a friendly, lilting accent, a guileful disarmament whose most powerful critique may be a sensible, perfectly placed, self-controlled silence by omission. What is not shown thus gains equal importance with what is selected for presentation.

An elliptical allusion to social commentary, consideration of the sanctity of the human family, and the idea of safety, nurture, and incorporation of vestigial African cultural elements all form part of the message in one of Twiggs's most compelling works from the series Night Bird (1991, Cat. no. 20). In this image, a dark-skinned child, with the characteristic fetal/alien head often represented by Twiggs, rests in a comfortable bed covered by a beautifully rendered quilt. A shadowy female figure lurks protectively in the doorway on the viewer's left, and in the center of the wall that the child faces, a four-paned window shows splashes of outdoor color with an alluring dark bird in mid-flight fluttering toward the branches of a tree on the exterior. This image conjures thoughts of childhood, safety and protection, magic and transformation, dreams and imagination; indeed, it is evocative of the formation of Twiggs's own artistic sensibilities and imaginative stimulation as a child, his own youth clearly implied. The work is at once luxuriant, familiar, mysterious, and magical; however, the slightly menacing bird may allude to the pervasive presence of random lynchings and night riders in the segregated South in which Twiggs matured. The viewers' awareness of the probable reality affecting the artist's creative memory provides this image with a contextual political edge.

This subtextual political agenda forms an inseparable foundation in much of Twiggs's creative work, and subsumed within his decision to make the transition from conventional paint media to the selection of his preferred medium of expression, batik, a technique generally associated with commercial craft, Twiggs's medium implies an arguably political motivation. As mediated through the matrix of his creative ideas, batik is used as a fine-art medium to great expressive effect. This evidently simple choice of medium may be construed as both aesthetically daring and politically complex, interweaving and implying associated concepts with characteristic understatement. The batik technique inherently incorporates a metaphor of the artist as worker, in contrast with the evolution of Euro-centrist traditional fine arts, wherein the artisanal laborer eventually is transformed into the image of the refined, intellectual aesthete, creating a subsequent legacy in which, often, conceptual inaccessibility, particularly for painting, and painters in the Western tradition, may form a significant part. Thus, art created for its own sake becomes frequently perceived as separated from the "common man." By contrast, Twiggs's election to employ commercial dyes, familiar to any housewife and to industrial workers, and to stain fabrics artfully indicate an undercurrent of proletarian sympathy and utilitarianism. This choice of medium also manipulates the fundamental character of our perception of and response to the work of art, because in the absence of impasto and brush stroke, few of the traditional aesthetic modes of expressive conveyance associated with traditional fine-art painting, except rich, understated color, are accessible in his compositions. Indeed, Twiggs)s paintings are a visual feast in which colors bleed, combine, and interact, creating natural fractal patterns dictated by the weave of the fabric or manipulation of the liquid dyes as directed by the effects of gravity and control of the artist, while supporting an illusion of spontaneity. In fact, the compelling interplay of diverse colors, juxtaposition of textures (such as the use of batik color over an existing gingham print) are the results of a relentless, methodical, internal inquiry on the artist's behalf: an innovative, self-searching process, which infuses the illusion of spontaneity into images that are, in fact, the culmination of the most careful, minute, and thoughtful aesthetic calculations. Even in his occasional forays into wearable art, Twiggs's experiments, which pay homage to the traditional use of batik, while stretching the parameters of its fine-art applications and the conceptual ideals circumnavigating the "Art" construct, are a conscious demonstration of the medium)s traditional uses and expressionist potential.

Within a pervasive, politicized social subtext, Southern or regional themes are often explored by Twiggs, who appears to enjoy consideration of the familiar. But, such themes may be telegraphed into a larger contextual matrix of human experience. A metaphorical consideration of such constructs as insiders versus outsiders, visions through windows or transparent barriers (a likely metaphor for segregation by race), ideas of separation and divine intervention in the material world are implied in the series, Ezekiel's Wheels (1991-1992) Cat. nos. 21 and 22). [8] Old age and the promise of youth meet in this series of images, where in one depiction, a blue-black figure in a stained, brown hat looks out into a universe of amazing uncertainty. He witnesses a supernatural event in the night sky that implies an other-worldly power. Painted in a torrid intermingling of violet and midnight blue with carefully measured splashes of crimson on a pale olive-gray ground this work unleashed Twiggs's creativity as a colorist. Through his rendering of a Biblical reference taken from a Southern Negro spiritual the artist transforms what could have been a simple, "folksy", Southern theme into a visual feast of abstractionist-influenced sophistication and elegance. The introduction of a musical metaphor, the Negro Spiritual, and considerations of heritage in this context also translate into other region-centered considerations by Twiggs of tradition's role in establishing a site-specific sense of identity.

The varied implications of heritage, culture, politics, and the aftermath of colonialism are especially important in Twiggs's treatment of regional themes with international significance. One series that particularly enriches the global dialogue on human relations is Commemorations in its varied incarnations spanning a period of over thirty years. With inspiration stemming from his studies at the University of Georgia, the artist conceived a motif using the symbolic icon of the South, the emblematic Naval Jack of the Confederacy. Twiggs's exploration of this theme implies a question of identity; specifically, who is "Southern"? What does this "Southerness" signify? The larger implication is a consideration of cultural constructs of difference and identity.

In Commemoration #9 (1970, Cat. no. 7), three ghostly figures are depicted with the faded image of a flag: a shadowy black figure in the background with two Caucasians in the foreground, all hovering above a symbol of the resurgent South, the Naval Jack of the Confederacy. [9] This image alludes to an economy built upon the sacrifice and labor of enslaved Africans in America, as well as to the creators of a culture based on the debasement of a black underclass who were relegated to the social fringes of a system that absorbed the freedom, physical bodies, and spirits of an exploited people without concession or acknowledgment. This black underclass was essentially Southern, inextricably defining the region's history; however, any discussion of the acceptance of the American of African descent within the canon of the Southern cultural construct is problematic. Yet, Twiggs offers his observations without anger, recrimination, or vituperative assault, employing a moody, haunting ghostliness, a compositional vagueness, wielded in this work as a metaphorical weapon, implying the silence of endurance, the forebearance of living through "Jim Crow" and legally sanctioned segregation by race. This extremely sensitive and sensible treatment of this theme, implying the sojourn of survival for the estranged African in a strange land, also tacitly implies the seldom acknowledged suffering of the enslavers, whose sacrifice of sensitivity and humanity extracted an additional, tragic toll.

 

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