Triangulations Of The Black Cat: Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe Black Like Me
Ghanian artist Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe’s gorgeously rendered oil paintings, on view at Roberts Projects, are stunning both in terms of their visual content and the literal application of the paint. One can make obvious allusions to artists like Kehinde Wiley or Wangechi Mutu, but these would only represent fleeting similarities as Quaicoe’s vision is very much his own. These paintings could be described as straightforward portraits, yet that would not account for their profound luminescence and the verifiable presence of Quaicoe in seemingly every brushstroke.
The means by which an artist is capable of transposing their own psychic and emotional resonances onto another person is very mysterious, yet when it happens it is quite magical. Quaicoe has created a visual language that triangulates between the artist, the sitter and the viewer as though each were in dialogue with the other unknowingly. One has the sense that Quaicoe enjoys interacting with his subjects as much as we as viewers relish seeing the results of those interactions, as he is able to capture not only a sense of dignity within each face, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the intimacy that exists as a result of his working process. Not all the images are of friends and family, yet this same sensitivity is manifest in all these faces. Quaicoe utilizes color as a means of transformation and ideation. These saturated oranges and blues, pastel pinks and crimson reds suggest not only a specific mood but a deeper, more complex emotional reality. Color takes on the characteristics of narrative, infusing the space surrounding each figure with necessary visual information about the person being represented.
Unlike Kehinde Wiley’s work, which is based upon fictional reconstructions of history, recontextualizing the image of the young Black man in today’s modern terms, Quaicoe’s paintings, which are also large scale, approach the idea of “Blackness” as a liminal yet perfected state of being, men and women living at the threshold of their own inherent possibilities. Nothing is permanently defined in these paintings, and that includes identity. One has the sense that the people that populate these works embrace their own transitional lives, as time pushes on, changing us all as it does in one way or another.
In many of the paintings, the trappings of each person’s life, whether it be a couch or a bright orange wall, translate into dynamic characters that serve to better illuminate our understanding of the actual person sitting in front of us. For example, in Nykhor on Blue Couch (2019), a young woman with bright yellow nails and peacock feather earrings sits arms crossed and gazing out at us, the expression on her face is one of half interest and half reserve. The scumbling in the whites of her eyes makes us think she is fighting an unnamable sadness, or it could simply denote a lack of sleep, but either way, it adds depth to her character and makes us more curious about her story. Also, there is a verifiable tension in her crossed arms. Is she listening to someone and not believing their story, or is the stance of a strong person who has had to struggle to move forward in her life? The blue couch only punctuates her defiant gaze.
Other paintings utilize humor to convey strength as in the triptych David Theodore Cowboy (2019) — three small panels in red, blue and yellow. The central figure wears a cowboy hat and a turtleneck that is pulled up around his mouth as he stares straight ahead at the viewer. The image is striking in both its authenticity and playfulness and suggests childhood games of cowboys and Indians. This same definitive wit suffuses other works like the enigmatic Man and his Black Cat (2019) [see slideshow at Riot Material/riotmaterial.com]. Again, the central figure stands facing us, flanked by a small black cat. This image, despite its apparent whimsy, also hints at a darker undercurrent.
Historically, the image of the black cat has been associated with divination and the dark arts, and during the Middle Ages, a black cat was a symbol of heresy and paganism, and some depictions of The Last Supper show a black cat curled at the feet of Judas. The cat represents the unbidden, libidinal impulse, and its placement in art is historically complicated, fraught with stereotypical associations in terms of how white culture views Black sexuality. Qusicoe reclaims the black cat as an image of empowerment, playfulness and familiarity. The cat is turned away from us, suggesting that he/she has no need of us, and is in fact complete. Cats are fiercely independent creatures, it’s true, but Quaicoe takes it a step further and aligns the cat with the young man standing next to it. The cat is his just as he belongs to the cat. The duality of their bodies side by side is a means of identifying the one with the other, yet both are undeniable in their strength and presence.