Elizabeth Colomba impresses with both technical skill and bold vision in ‘Repainting the Story’ exhibit

elizabeth columba

Elizabeth Columba’s “1492” is part of her “Repainting the Story” exhibition in Princeton.

Might the temptation of Eve have occurred in a stylish bedroom? Could the serpent have slithered away on a tiled floor? Could a Vermeer-like still life have stared down, from a high wall, at the half-bitten apple as it rolled from the heroine’s hand? Oh — and might Eve’s skin have been brown?

This is not how the female lead of the early chapters of Genesis tends to be depicted. But as a literary character, she is as available for artistic reinterpretation as Hamlet, or Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” — and Elizabeth Colomba’s unorthodox version of Eve is confidently realized. Her Virgin Mary is just as vivid, and just as Black.

Until May 8, both portraits will hang on the walls of Bainbridge House in Princeton. “Elizabeth Colomba: Repainting the Story” presents the artist as an audacious editor, myth re-visitor, visual provocateur, redresser of cultural wrongs, tweaker of pieties, deep appreciator of the beauty of women of color, and firm believer in the importance of Black representation.

More than anything, though, the show reveals Colomba as a woman with powerful imitative skills. Her training at the School of Beaux-Arts in Paris has given the Martinique-born, Brooklyn-based artist a firm understanding of the styles she subtly sends up.

Most of the 12 canvases in the exhibition look as though they could have been painted more than a century ago. Colomba has a traditionalist’s sense of perspective, illumination, balance and visual storytelling, and uses a traditionalist’s tools: oil paint, gold leaf, austere frames, that peculiar kind of gloomy grandeur favored by the canonized.

Colomba is as scrupulous about period details as were the producers of “Bridgerton.” Ballroom dresses billow. Interiors are busy with velvet drapes, tapestries and Japanese screens, and decorated with tallow candles, Grecian vases and Delft pottery. Even the color palette is characteristic of European masters. The grays are glowering, the reds are rich and suggestive of royalty, the roses are madder, and the wallpaper, naturally, is yellow.

Elizabeth Columba’s “Four Elements, Five Senses” is part of the “Repainting the Story” exhibition.

If that’s all there was to “Elizabeth Colomba: Repainting the Story,” curated confidently by Laura Giles and Monique Long, the show would still be worth visiting — to marvel at the painter’s uncanny talent for mimicry. But the beauty of her paintings is simultaneously an illusionist’s trick and a political gesture. Colomba tucks Black women into scenes where they are not often seen, and makes it seem like they always have belonged there. Delilah of the Book of Judges — she of the dreaded emasculating scissors — becomes an ebony seductress. Danaë, the paramour of Zeus and the mother of Perseus, is given coffee-colored skin and a glorious crown of curly black hair. Clytie, the spurned nymph of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” is depicted, in gouache and watercolor, as a weeping Black girl.

Readers of all races and ethnicities are not accustomed to thinking of these world-famous characters like this. Once we have encountered Colomba’s versions, perhaps, henceforth, we will.

None of this is satire — at least not entirely. Colomba respects Old World masterpieces too much to poke fun at them. Notably, she applies the same techniques to the show’s only painting of a human being whose existence is verifiable: enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley, who is surrounded by enough inky darkness to drown a Rembrandt subject. If Wheatley had been painted by an 18th-century American master, it is hard to imagine she would have looked much different.

It is, however, hard not to wonder how a Black Eve or Delilah or Danaë would feel about getting squeezed into the tight corset of traditional European painting. They might demand to be rendered in a style a little more liberating than the one favored by the patriarchs of visual art. European portraiture is beautiful, of course, but its strict conventions eventually required rescue by innovators. Much of that invigoration was provided by Black American artists who found European traditions stuffy, and who broke rules with the sort of abandon that the meticulous Colomba isn’t interested in.

Elizabeth Columba’s “Phillis” is part of the “Repainting the Story” exhibition.

To her credit, Colomba attempts to enliven her chosen style, and generally succeeds. “1492” is a commentary on the disastrous consequences of the clash of continents; it is also an opportunity for Colomba to strut her stuff. The painting depicts a bowl of flour tumbling from the arms of an aghast Black woman, and the artist’s brush seems to account for every grain of powder, billowing from the overturned vessel like smoke from a cannon muzzle. It is a picture of a collision — a freeze frame of a disaster that can’t be undone, captured at the very moment of irreparable rupture — and it is the best, most immediate, and most chilling thing in the show.

Almost as lively is “The Denial of St. Peter,” a symphony of gazes. A kitten (Colomba loves painting cats) stares at a dead cock in the grasping hand of Mary, who glances downward as she walks. Hollowed eyes in the portraits on the wall look straight ahead; a man depicted on the cushion of a chair seems to follow Mary with concern. All of these vectors of attention set the painting aswirl.

The image is a turbine of energy, and everything points toward an empty frame on the wall in the upper left corner of the painting. Here, it is implied, Mary gets to inscribe her own narrative.

Elizabeth Columba’s “The Denial of St. Peter” is part of the “Repainting the Story” exhibition.

Yet Colomba does not tell us what that story might be. The Mary of “The Denial” shares a look of defiance with Laure, the central figure in “Portrait of a Negress,” a canvas that is given its own gallery near the entrance of Bainbridge House. In the artist’s repainted universe, Laure is literally an escapee from another work: Édouard Manet’s “Olympia,” which contains an image of an unnamed Black woman in a supporting role.

Manet’s woman of color is subordinate, part of the scenery, there as a foil for the white prostitute whose tacit impertinence provides the painting its drama. Colomba’s Laure strides down a Paris street toward the viewer, independent and unmolested, right in the center of the road with parasol open. She has stepped out of the shadow of her white mistress and she sure looks pleased about it, but she has not managed to elude any of the strict conventions of period portraiture. Nothing about her world or her milieu has been transformed. She simply has assumed the centrality that older painters would have denied her.

Maybe that self-definition is destination — and revolution — enough. Elizabeth Colomba’s scathing glances backward seem appropriate to Bainbridge House, a handsome Georgian building that the Princeton University Art Museum is using for its exhibitions until its new facility opens on campus in 2024. Bainbridge House was built in 1766 and was, for a brief period in 1783, a boarding house for members of the Continental Congress. During the War of Independence, the Bainbridge family were both British loyalists and slaveholders. We know who some of their male slaves were; the names of the female slaves have been erased by history. Should their ghosts still haunt these Princeton bricks, “Repainting the Story” ought to provide some succor to them.

Bainbridge House is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Thursdays through Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Visit artmuseum.princeton.edu.

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