Donald Byrd on Susanna and the Elders

Donald Byrd on Susanna and the Elders

Donald Byrd on Susanna and the Elders

Listen to local choreographer Donald Byrd discuss how Robert Colescott's Susanna and the Elders (Novelty Hotel) connects to themes of the Figuring History exhibition.

Donald Byrd on Susanna and the Elders

Donald Byrd on Susanna and the Elders

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Transcript

My name is Donald Byrd and I'm the Executive Artistic Director at Spectrum Dance Theater. I chose this piece because I think it is deceptive in the color. And so when you just kind of glance at it and you go, oh ha, ha, ha. It's so delightful and so like that. And it's actually not delightful. It's not a delightful, the painting is delightful, but the content of it is not.

Usually historically when people talk about novelty hotels, burlesque shows were novelty shows. It's kind of being framed as a performance in some ways, in a non-performative kind of environment, which is a bathroom.

The way she is posed and the curtains make us think of a girly show, so it's like a burlesque show. And so then we wonder if she is consciously performing for the men. So there are two there and then one up there, which that one apparently is the artist. And so is she performing for them? There's a lot of talk about how everybody is complicit in this painting. And a funny part about that is the rubber ducky complicit as well?

The two men here, one black, one white, that they are united one of an instance where they're separate racial differences come together to kind of participate in ogling her. Kind of like I try to do in some of my work time is you perform the ridiculous, we don't want to acknowledge certain things. We perform that in front of an audience. And I think this painting, he's using the color in a very particular kind of way, I think it's a way of pulling us in so that we're actually able to receive the message or messages of the painting and so that the painting exists on a lot of levels. It actually prevents us from putting up barriers to the meaning of something because if it's too explicit in some ways we go, OK, we shut down, I don't want to hear it like this way and this painting actually keeps inviting you in further and further through those, kind of carnival like colors.

Part of what a satire and humor, it allows us to enjoy it as well so that it is the multiplicity of meaning. We can enjoy it on some level even if we don't get some of the other meanings. Like satire and like my piece, The Minstrel Show, I think we enjoy it and we feel a little bit guilty because we're enjoying it, because it has so many things about it that we can enjoy.

Do you think it's funny? Do you see what's satirical about it? Maybe come back and look at it again. And then what's your response to it?

LOW/NO VISION TRANSCRIPT

You are listening to a verbal description of the artwork intended for someone with low to no vision.

Susanna and the Elders (Novelty Hotel), painted in 1980 by Robert Colescott. Acrylic on canvas. 7 feet tall by about 6 feet wide.

This is a painting of three men observing a naked white woman standing in a bathtub. The woman's peachy pink left leg hangs in the air as she steps out of a hot pink bathtub that extends from the left edge of the canvas towards the center, and her right arm pulls back a sheer blue shower curtain that reveals a yellow rubber duck floating in the aqua blue water. She is the largest figure in the scene, and her head peeks over the curtain rod. She has curly yellow shoulder-length hair and faces towards the left of the painting, but her blue eye shadowed eyes are closed, and her full red lips pursed and highlighted as though covered in a gloss.

In the upper left corner, a man's face with golden-tan skin, curly short grey hair, beard, and mustache, and brown round-rimmed eye glasses peers from a brown wooden-framed basement window tilted open into the bathroom below.

On the right side of the canvas, a black man with dark brown skin, full pink lips, and bushy grey eyebrows that match his curly white hair bends at his waist to look at the woman. He wears blue jeans, a white collared shirt bunched up to his elbows, a black tie, a white cap with a black brim, and white saddle shoes with black at the toe and heel. He holds the light wooden handle of a grey mop, which drips onto a puddle of water and bar of soap at the base of the tub at the bottom center of the picture. Behind him stands a bald white man whose pale skin contrasts with the red bathrobe he wears. He rests his left hand on the man's shoulder in front of him, looking in profile at the woman in the center with a long, bent nose and cigarette hanging out of his thin mouth. The two men fill two-thirds of the height of the canvas, along the right edge.

The words "Novelty Hotel" is written on a white bathmat in the lower left corner below the tub, and a matching hot pink toilet with a closed black toilet seat fills the lower right corner in front of the two men's feet. Yellow tile floor matches the yellow light streaming from a hanging single bulb with a crooked white shade to the right of the woman's head, and from the open window to her left. Two strings of hanging laundry—brown stockings, a pink girdle with straps—extend from the shower curtain rod, above the two men's heads, and to the top right corner of the canvas. Teal wallpaper with dashes of coral covers the background wall.

Now, here's an interpretive analysis of this artwork.

My name is Donald Byrd and I'm the Executive Artistic Director at Spectrum Dance Theater. I chose this piece because I think it is deceptive in the color. And so when you just kind of glance at it and you go, oh ha, ha, ha. It's so delightful and so like that. And it's actually not delightful. It's not a delightful, the painting is delightful, but the content of it is not.

Usually historically when people talk about novelty hotels, burlesque shows were novelty shows. It's kind of being framed as a performance in some ways, in a non-performative kind of environment, which is a bathroom.

The way she is posed and the curtains make us think of a girly show, so it's like a burlesque show. And so then we wonder if she is consciously performing for the men. So there are two there and then one up there, which that one apparently is the artist. And so is she performing for them? There's a lot of talk about how everybody is complicit in this painting. And a funny part about that is the rubber ducky complicit as well?

The two men here, one black, one white, that they are united one of an instance where they're separate racial differences come together to kind of participate in ogling her. Kind of like I try to do in some of my work time is you perform the ridiculous, we don't want to acknowledge certain things. We perform that in front of an audience. And I think this painting, he's using the color in a very particular kind of way, I think it's a way of pulling us in so that we're actually able to receive the message or messages of the painting and so that the painting exists on a lot of levels. It actually prevents us from putting up barriers to the meaning of something because if it's too explicit in some ways we go, OK, we shut down, I don't want to hear it like this way and this painting actually keeps inviting you in further and further through those, kind of carnival like colors.

Part of what a satire and humor, it allows us to enjoy it as well so that it is the multiplicity of meaning. We can enjoy it on some level even if we don't get some of the other meanings. Like satire and like my piece, The Minstrel Show, I think we enjoy it and we feel a little bit guilty because we're enjoying it, because it has so many things about it that we can enjoy.

Do you think it's funny? Do you see what's satirical about it? Maybe come back and look at it again. And then what's your response to it?