Colin Quashie’s pointed response to the world around him

Op-Ed Art

It may be difficult to spot Colin Quashie’s second-story studio if you aren’t explicitly looking for it. An indistinct C and Q pasted to a glass door are the only clues that something else goes on in this standalone brick-and-concrete building on Upper King Street besides the haircuts that take place in the first-floor barber shop. It doesn’t help that the logo gives a better impression of a cloud than a formal set of initials, the puffy and bulbous letters joined together in a cartoonish fashion. So instead, a better sign of what happens on the second story may be in the downstairs shop, where one of Quashie’s works hangs on a wall near the wide windows.

Upstairs, you may hear quick and cool jazz, with the occasional overpowering spurt of gospel coming in from below. When the artist acquired his space a little more than two years ago, the hair cuttery was an accountant’s office.

Inside, the studio is a wide, tidy room, anchored by a coffee table surrounded by a handful of wicker chairs. Venture too far from this oasis, and you might bump into a more than six-foot-tall accordion-like birch panel advertising an alternate universe’s housing development or brush against a framed poster leaning on a partition. Quashie has no gallery representation, so this space offers an unofficial retrospective of his decades-long career. During the 20 or 30 hours a week the artist typically spends here, the studio has played host to MFA classes and arbitrary visitors, sometimes more than a dozen at a time. Someone familiar with his body of work can delight in spotting Quashie’s signature characters on his walls, like his appropriation of Charles Schultz’s Franklin, the token black character of Peanuts.

When a show of his closes, no matter how notable, Quashie usually takes his work home with him. He doesn’t sell many — or really any — of his compositions. His art is not something you can inexplicably hang in your living room; Oprah’s grinning face on a ruby-red box of Auntie Jemima pancake and waffle mix probably wouldn’t match many sofas, and his tourist-poster spoof “Rainbro Row,” with its vividly painted slave cabins, would make little sense in a sunny, white-washed vacation home. Other work is less tangible, like the “blackbored,” a chalkboard he often installs in show spaces; he’ll have it set up in the foyer at Redux Contemporary Art Center, where his show The Plantation (Plan-ta-shun) officially begins a run on March 30. Or the exhibit’s signature board game, Plantation Monopoly, complete with deeds, paper money, and slaves and mules up for sale.

Like many of his peers, Quashie has taken the time to craft an artist’s statement, but this type of work doesn’t require an esoteric explanation of its greater purpose. It is about race. It is political. It is emotional. Even in its best moments, it can be garish and aggressive, impeccable in its delivery but uneasy in its message. It is meant to start a conversation, and, for better or worse, it does.

And that message surges from an unassuming man in glasses, who on our visit is wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap marked with the “F” and alligator of the University of Florida, the college he attended for a few semesters. Quashie is a former Navy man, comedy writer, and Emmy Award-winner. He lives on Carolina Street with his wife of 11 years, Cathy. He has two stepdaughters and two grandkids. He wakes up at six every morning and drives Cathy to work, then spends a few hours planning, catching up on paperwork, and writing — he has a short film that’s currently being shot in Atlanta — before doing what helps pay his bills: maintenance work, like installing ceiling fans. It gives him flexible hours. Then he’ll spend his afternoons in this studio, sometimes working well into the night if he’s deep into a specific piece.

Most remarkably, Quashie is a Charleston artist who hasn’t exhibited a solo show in the city since 2005. “He is among the best artists working anywhere today, but most people in Charleston have no idea what he does,” says Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art Executive Director Mark Sloan, who has known and worked with Quashie since the early ’90s, and who has dealt with the controversies that come as a result of an inflammatory Quashie show.

“I call it anger, not that I’m angry,” the artist says of his motivation. “I always hate using the word anger because people never seem to understand it. They always think, you know, you’re the angry black man. No, no, no. It’s not that at all.” Instead, he likens his aesthetic to Bob Dylan writing an anti-war song. “This is my op-ed. This is basically what it is. Art is my op-ed. It is how I respond to things, and that’s what I’m passionate about — responding to things around me that make an impression on me.”

Quashie wants to add to the dialogue, to have a conversation, and to ask questions. It just so happens that he does so by producing a mixed-media sculpture of Africa-shaped pork chops encased beneath the Piggly Wiggly mascot, a provocative version of the kind you’d buy at the grocery store for $3.55.

When the City Paper met with Quashie a few weeks ago, many of the works that will be featured in Plantation still littered his studio. As he flits around the space, brainstorming new ideas about whether to hang pages from a notebook or where he may be able to find miniature atomizers for cologne samples, you get the sense that parts of the show may still be a work in progress.

“This is the first time in my art career that I’ve ever put together a cohesive show,” he explains. “I usually do one to two or three or four pieces, and then I move on to something else, because I guess I’m more of a journalistic or social commentator of sorts. So whatever kind of strikes me at the moment is what I work on. All of this could possibly change within another two months and I could be on to something totally different. It’s just that I noticed that recently a lot of the pieces I’ve been working on seem to have a throughline, and the throughline seemed to be the plantation.”

Redux’s then-executive director Karen Ann Myers initially contacted Quashie last spring about hosting the show. “I sat with Colin on the panel for the Under the Radar exhibition [a collaborative show between the City Gallery and the Halsey], and it reminded me how powerful his artwork is and how important his voice is for the city and the region,” she says. “The city of Charleston is famous for celebrating its history, for good reason, but in fairness, the story is complex, and it should go without saying that that complexity deserves our attention and recognition.”

Plantation is not about slavery. As Quashie says, no one, black or white, wants to talk about slavery. Instead, the show deals with different aspects of plantation life, the pros and the cons. Ultimately, it is about the past and the present.

“Charleston is so much about the past,” Quashie says. “The South basically glorifies the past. As far as they’re concerned, the past isn’t the past. It’s still the present. So that’s what we market, that’s what we sell, but we do it in a lot of different ways, and plantations are a mirror of that. Plantations are in the present, but they reflect the past, and depending on your sensibilities and the way you look at the plantation system tells a lot about what your sensibilities are.” Quashie’s vision is nothing like the modern money shots of hanging moss and white weddings you’ll see on decadent blogs or in a luxury magazine — his is harsher and truer to their dark history.

For each new piece produced for the show, Quashie took a part of that past and connected it to something the audience will know from the present. The gallery’s outer wall has already been painted to ape the Parker Brothers’ game, with the massive outdoor artwork reflecting the smaller version he has produced for the exhibit. Redux’s mural has been labeled with the familiar blue and green rectangles that signify the game’s most expensive properties, but Boardwalk and Park Place have been replaced with Magnolia Plantation and Boone Hall. The playable Plantation Monopoly will be set up inside, and Quashie sincerely hopes he’ll come in some time during the show’s more than month-long run to find patrons actually playing it.

“It’s the exact same game, except that everything has just been reconfigured,” he says, but certain adjustments have been made to reflect familiar Charleston landmarks and historical concepts. “I even rewrote all of the rules and everything like that. And of course, instead of hotels, once you get four slaves, you can buy yourself a mule to work on your plantation.” There’s “Change” instead of “Chance,” and a Confederate Chest. Mr. Moneybags is still a central character, rewarding players with $100 if their slave mistress gives birth to mulatto twins. Instead of going directly to jail, you must pray for abolition in a Quaker church, and the railroad system is of the underground variety.

It might be a bold move for the gallery to give Quashie such a public canvas, considering that The Black American Dream, his show for the 1996 MOJA Festival, was brusquely relocated at the last minute, with a security guard installed outside to protect the prying eyes of youth from Quashie’s expression about a black person’s feelings of mediocrity compared to the white man (“Black is ignorant. Black is lazy.”). Luckily, Redux has given the artist free rein. “Because we are a nonprofit, we are not limited by the saleability of work, therefore our artists are allowed to experiment and push boundaries,” says Janie Askew, Redux’s current executive director. “Colin thrives in this type of environment. He is certainly not one to be limited.”

When guests of the show first walk into Redux, they will be welcomed into a mini-classroom, complete with a wooden desk-chair and the installed blackbored. In previous shows, Quashie has posed questions like “George Washington is often referred to as the ‘father of our country.’ So … why are there no white people with the last name, Washington?” This time around, he ponders, “If slavery ended so long ago, it has no impact on the present. But there are people yet living who knew someone who was either a slave or a slave owner, then …” (The City Paper has taken some liberties with punctuation, as the quote was spoken to us and not read directly off the blackbored.)

Visitors will be encouraged to write their responses to the query in a spiral-bound notebook, which Quashie keeps for himself at the end of the show. Today, the artist flips through pages from a previous blackbored, one inspired by Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s racist blowup in August 2010, and the N-word litters the replies in all sorts of bubbly, slanty, and sloppy handwriting. Quashie goes through these answers and decides on the one that is most correct, though no one is truly ever correct. The closest gets a free print.

As they continue into Redux, visitors will see screenprints, acrylic paintings, mixed-media, and more. Quashie is a rare artist who balances quality and quantity, and as impressive as his ideas are the many ways he chooses to express them. “I have no mediums. I refuse to restrict myself,” he says. “I refuse to allow myself to be static when it comes to any one particular medium. I don’t understand why artists do that. It just makes no sense to me whatsoever. One of my favorite quotes is an old Abraham Maslow. It says: ‘If your only tool is a hammer, you tend to look at every problem as a nail.'” He doesn’t think you can address every particular subject in the same exact way — different topics require different tools. “Sometimes I have to do it as a coloring book. Sometimes I have to do it as just words or maybe an oil painting or something.”

But whether he wants to hit the viewer over the head with an idea or use a bit more finesse, he almost always utilizes advertising and other forms of modern iconography. “Then your battle is already half done. Why reinvent the wheel?” he asks. “All I have to do now is just tweak it, and not comedically or anything like that — real life.”

In Plantation, a timecard stands tall, marking the long hours a slave would work each day, including weekends. The brochure for Plantation Properties takes descriptions from a modern housing development to detail the amenities of slave cabins. Plantation palettes offer color samples, like Whip-or-Will and Bar-B-Crew, for your mansion.

Another piece uses text straight from old fugitive slave posters, only the word “Reward” has been changed to “Resumé.” And a plantation magazine, complete with an editor’s note, offers a sample of Mandingo cologne and advertisements for Fledex and J. Crow clothing. (Quashie once envisioned a show conceptualized around a department store, with real clothing produced for his J. Crow brand. He promises that any connection to the well-known J. Crew is purely accidental; it took a friend to point out the connection between the fictional brand and the nonfictional one for Quashie to even realize it).

And there is a different part of Plantation, once you pass through the images of scarred backs and burning bodies, to another section of the gallery. It is a softer side, both in meaning and in presentation, with pieces in gentle colors, paintings that will temper the volume of Quashie’s louder works.

“I realized I was kind of getting out there a little bit as far as the cynicism was concerned, and so I wanted to pull it back in, because the bottom line is I also wanted to talk about who were the real people who lived on these plantations,” he says. Quashie found photographs of former slaves, now left to their own devices in an unfriendly world, on the Library of Congress’ website, and he wanted to make them larger in life. In one painting, a man poses in a slightly crumpled blue suit, a white beard decorating his tired face, his wife and home in black-and-white behind him.

The plain background is meant to represent the past. The colorful subject is the future.

There was a time when Colin Quashie was a commercial artist.

When he started in the 1990s, his work was available in galleries, and people bought it. He did fairly well, but it wasn’t his style. He was doing derivative stuff that he knew would sell, and at one point he even got a commission for some wildlife work. “You already saw the path that you were on,” he says. “It’s either you are going to stay on this path, or get off now. Hurry up and get off right now. So I jumped off.”

He was also working at a gallery at the time, and he bore witness to the power play between dealers and the dealt. Like, “This sold. Can we get two more like it? Someone’s asking you to do this.”

His peers would do as they were told. “And I’m like, wow. That’s a job. It’s like the passion has been sucked out of you and now you’re just servicing the market,” he says. “I can’t allow my art to go in that direction. I won’t allow it to. That’s never, ever, ever, ever going to happen.”

Still, he needed to find something that he was passionate about. And when he created his “EBONY Magazine (Issues Ir-relevant to Black America)” piece, a cartoon mock-up that stands out in bright yellow on a wall in his studio, he says that’s when the clouds parted.

As a result of his epiphany, Quashie rarely sells his work. He is not a commercial artist and has no intentions of ever becoming one. “People don’t want this crap on their walls,” he laughs. He does sell a piece every now and then, and he’s starting to get more inquiries. He’s also searching for a new art agent. “I just don’t want to be Mr. Poster. It’s just too personal to me, and I don’t want to have to service the machine.”

But that’s not to say that he’s never gotten a lucrative commission — last year, he was recruited by actor Laurence Fishburne to create a portrait of his wife, actress Gina Torres. (You can see it on Quashie’s blog, Nevertheless, Quashie has turned down other offers, because he’s not going to paint your dog. “I don’t want my art to become my job. It’s my passion, and if I can sell my passion, then that’s fine, but if I can’t, then I’ll just continue doing what I’m doing. I work as a maintenance man now to pay my bills. And if I never sell a piece of artwork again, then so be it,” he says.

In the meantime, he has his daily job, plus freelance design work, and he teaches at Charlotte’s Innovation Institute four or five times a year. He may have to work outside of art to pay his bills, but it gives him time to mentally construct, analyze, and plan for upcoming exhibitions, including four more this year. “Eventually, I do want my passion to become my job as something I can earn a living from, just not a job as in a chore.”

Quashie doesn’t criticize the gallery system, because galleries are businesses. Personally, he’s afraid of becoming a commodity. “Once you fall into the gallery system, you’re kind of at the hands of what people are willing to purchase.” That’s why he’s gone through a number of art agents: They were trying to sell the art, not the artist. “Once you start following that ship, you get off track of what it is you’re ultimately trying to accomplish. Sometimes there’s no going back. Once you get known for painting red, it’s hard to shift over and tell people ‘I really, really like painting blue.'” Quashie doesn’t ever want to be expected. He wants to be anticipated.

And Plantation surely accomplishes that. Both the artist and Redux have received nothing but positive response to the show, which could be due to the scarcity of such an opportunity. If Mark Sloan had his way, Quashie would have a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. “His work is that caliber, but there are many intermediate steps that need to take place in order for that to happen, but I predict it will, and soon,” he says. “Quashie is a nationally significant artist that happens to live in Charleston. I think his work offers a scathing critique of America. His voice is strong, his ideas provocative, and his message is essential.”

And yet you’re never going to be able to stroll through the French Quarter and stumble upon one of his pieces. When Plantation closes, it might be a long time before we see such a breadth of material from Quashie in Charleston again.

Regardless, considering Quashie isn’t a frequent celebrity on the local First Friday circuit, the city’s art scene is certainly one that he’s proud of. “I brag on the Charleston contemporary art community,” he says, crediting figures like Sloan and spaces like Redux and the Halsey, as well as Rebekah Jacob Gallery and Robert Lange Studios. “Ten, 15 years ago, that wasn’t the case,” he says. “My god, it was dead. This place was horrible. It was run by the watercolor society, it seems like it, the watercolor and the poster artists. This was the place where contemporary art went to die.”

Sadly, he can’t boast about a community of contemporary black artists in the same way. He’s not saying they don’t exist, but he’s not personally aware of them.

There may be three stages of reaction to a Colin Quashie piece, as Janie Askew describes. First is mirth, in the form of laughter. That is followed by guilt, which in turn is followed by sadness.

“I stand by the fact that contemporary art is not always easily digestible for the masses,” she says. “The best art invokes emotions and thought. Colin’s work just so happens to be provocative, and I am proud to be affiliated with an art organization that supports that.”

Unfortunately, it can be a quick jump from provocative to offensive, depending on the eyes of the beholder. Quashie’s work used to upset people. “That was my fault,” he admits. “I used to make a lot of statements in my artwork. I used to use my artwork as a sounding board by which to make statements, and I realized that that was wrong. You can’t do that. You can if you want to, but you’re more effective by asking someone a question rather than telling them a statement.” Quashie had to learn how to take himself out of the equation. That doesn’t mean he’s not present in his work, but he is more objective in the way he approaches it.

Most importantly, he started painting facts, not truth. “I got rid of truth. Truth will get you in trouble, because truth is subjective. Ten different people, that’s 10 different truths. Ten different people, there’s only one fact.” It’s a lesson he learned from the comedy writing he did in the ’90s for MadTV and other shows. You can lay out the truth, and just tweak it a little bit. The way that he chooses to articulate that one fact is where things can get subjective, but you still can’t argue with the facts. Every little detail on his Monopoly board is a fact. So if someone gets upset, there’s no blow-back on Quashie. That’s something the viewer is dealing with, something internal that they’re pissed off about.

Still, criticism still comes in from all across the board, black and white, young and old. “People are so nonsensical sometimes in what their passions are,” he says. “You can’t call it. You really can’t. And I’ve given up trying.” He was once cursed out by a black woman who told him he needed to be more responsible to his community. Benedict College, a historically black school in Columbia, shut down a show over a massive painting of Jesus Christ on the cover of CQ magazine. Its teasers questioned conservative backlash to gay culture, advertising stories like “Nature, Nurture, or Nomenclature? ‘Can a man be born (again) gay?'” The college thought he was promoting homosexuality.

Once, an elderly white woman in Orangeburg called him a racist to his face. “But the fact that she stood there and came to me … you have to respect that,” he says. “We actually had an incredible conversation.”

He’ll be able to hear direct responses to Plantation at a panel discussion at Redux on April 7 at 3 p.m., entitled “Idea and Meaning in the Art of Colin Quashie.” It will be moderated by Frank Martin, a doctoral scholar in the African-American Professors program at the University of South Carolina who curated an exhibit with Quashie in 2005. The artist is not actively participating in the panel, but he’ll be in the audience, bearing witness as people like Mark Sloan interpret his work.

“Miss Margaret” is a work in progress, a lovingly vivid portrait of a neighbor of Quashie’s that stands incomplete in the front nook of his studio. At first, he wanted to compose her out of charcoal. “I like the look of charcoal, but I can’t stand the tactile feel of charcoal. I hate it. I hate that dusty shit,” he says. So instead, he painted the canvas in a solid tone to create a kind of colored paper, and he’s in the process of painting over this base with oils to get the same kind of appearance as the powdery medium. Miss Margaret will be part of “Faces of Color,” the new direction that Quashie is heading into.

“I’m starting to repeat myself, which is something I absolutely refuse to do, I hate doing. I can’t stand it,” he says. “I may paint something two or three times, then it’s time to move on. I’ve done that. Let’s keep going.”

“Miss Margaret” is a sensible evolution of the portraits that will hang in the back of Redux, and a much gentler interpretation of Quashie’s overall goal of addressing issues of race. While this painting and the one he has hanging in the barbershop below him may not be so blatantly argumentative, they still manage to address his issues with race. But, “Don’t worry. There’s more cynical stuff coming,” Quashie tells us.

“I just want a dialogue. I just want people to gather information,” he says of Plantation. “There’s a lot of people in this city who may look at plantations from one perspective and one perspective only, and I want them to be able to come to this exhibition and to look at them and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that.'” He hopes that a nudge from his work can lead to a greater discussion. “I guess they can have that conversation in the way that they choose to approach things, in the way that they think about things, to take other people’s perspectives into question sometimes. That’s something I do as an artist. Before I paint anything, you always have to weigh the pros and the cons … And that goes a long way, when people do that in every facet of life.”

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