Sunday, September 1, 2013
Leo Twiggs Shifting Symbols BIO & ESSAY: LEO TWIGGS DOES MORE WITH LESS by Wim Roefs
LEO TWIGGS DOES MORE WITH LESS
By Wim Roefs
The X shape on its side – a horizontal cross of St. Andrew – first appeared prominently in Leo Twiggs’ work around 1970, with stars, in his depiction of the Confederate flag. The X reappeared in the same capacity in the mid-1990s, when a high-pitched hate-versus-heritage debate in Twiggs’ home state, South Carolina, focused on that flag flying on top of the capitol. Twiggs has continued to use the flag image in different contexts, forms, shapes and colors, including white, to trigger debates about Southern heritage. He is preparing a 2015 exhibition of flags for the Greenville County (S.C.) Museum of Art.
Twiggs’ X, however, evolved beyond that flag. When revisiting the flag theme, he also began to paint the cross without the stars. As he did, the shape reminded him of the railroad crossings of the rural South, which resulted, around 2000, in the start of a new series, Silent Crossing. Railroads split towns, with wrong and presumably right sides. They segregated towns figuratively and, when a slow freight train came through, literally, but also provided a way out for Southern blacks. The crossing became Twiggs’ symbol for the need “to cross over,” as he put it, perhaps at the intersection of different cultures and values, as people seek to overcome differences, including those involving race and that flag.
The cross took on yet another meaning when Twiggs began his Targeted Man series in the mid-2000s. X now marked the spot, typically on or near figures singled out as targets or already eliminated. It symbolized the shadow that has hovered over African Americans forever but after 9/11 also intimidated other Americans as the country at large felt targeted and stalked.
Twiggs’ cross of St. Andrews is indicative of how he has used forms, shapes and symbols for years, even decades, but in the process has inserted them with new meaning, life and narrative roles. The Silent Crossing series also featured red dots as the red lights over the railroad crossing sign. But already within that series, the dots became, too, the bull’s eye of a target. In the Targeted Man series, even more so than the X mark, the dot and full target are the dominant visual element, along with the figure under assault.
Twiggs’ cows, also regulars, stand for rural living but also for “docile helplessness,” as he calls it, “the condition of most under-classes in a capitalist environment.” Two of Twiggs’ male figures – both bulky, with hat but few features, one en profile, the other frontal or from the back – populate many of his paintings, taking on a variety of roles. Between them, they depict black ancestral or father figures; a comforting or ominous presence; men of undetermined race leaving or going to the red house; targeted black men or targeted white men; men singing the blues or causing them.
Repositioning similar shapes, forms, figures and objects physically, aesthetically, conceptually and in relation to each other is one way in which Twiggs creates consistency within in a varied body of work. The approach has resulted in a recognizable visual vocabulary that allows the work to remain familiar while staying fresh, creating a range of symbolic narratives much wider than Twiggs’ modest cast of characters would suggest. The approach also has contributed to the ambiguity that Twiggs inserts into his paintings, leaving meaning up for debate even as the issues in question are clear. And so Figure And Flag of 2014 shows that flag flying over a figure, black or white, saluting him or taunting him or leaving him wearily indifferent.
Wim Roefs is the owner of if ART Gallery
Orangeburg, S.C., resident Leo Twiggs (1934) is among South Carolina’s most revered and important artists, arts educators and arts administrators of the past 50 years. In 1980, he became the first visual artist to receive South Carolina’s Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts. His 2004 career retrospective, accompanied by a catalogue, opened at the Georgia Museum of Art and traveled to the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, S.C., the Greenville County (S.C.) Museum of Art, the Delta Fine Arts Center in Winston Salem, N.C., and the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia. Twiggs has had more than 70 solo exhibitions, the largest being Civil/Uncivil: The Art Of Leo Twiggs at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park in Charleston, S.C., in 2011. His work was selected for the South Carolina State Museum’s 1999 millennium exhibition 100 Years, 100 Artists. Among the many other places where Twiggs has exhibited are New York City’s Studio Museum in Harlem; the Schenectady (N.Y.) Museum; the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, Italy; the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University, Ithaca N.Y.; the Mississippi Museum of Art; and the American Crafts Museum in New York. Twiggs’ 1997 exhibition, Commemoration Revisited, a return to paintings of tattered images of Confederate flags 25 years earlier, received national attention. Already during the 1970s, his work was included in several national exhibitions representing a who’s who of African-American art.
Twiggs’ career and body of work is extensively documented in the 320-page, heavily illustrated, 2011 book Messages From Home: The Art Of Leo Twiggs (Orangeburg, SC: Claflin University Press). He is featured in dozens of books, articles and other publications, including Elton Fax’s 1977 book Black Artists of the New Generation; the Studio Museum’s 1978 catalogue Leo Twiggs: Down Home Landscape; Samella Lewis’ 1990 book African American Arts and Artists; Amalia K. Amaki’s A Century of African American Art, 2004; and the 2006 if ART catalogue Leo Twiggs: Toward Another Retrospective.
Twiggs was born in 1934 in St. Stephen, S.C. In 1956, he received his B.A. Summa Cum Laude from Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. In 1961, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1964 earned his MA from New York University, and in 1971was the first African-American to receive a doctorate in art education from the University of Georgia. Formerly a distinguished professor of art and executive director of the I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., Twiggs is S.C. State professor emeritus and distinguished artist-in-residence at Claflin University.