Now on view in the Contemporary Art Gallery is Robert Colescott’s large-scale print Pontchartrain. It’s one of those works that can hold your attention for a long time—there are all kinds of things in it that may not be apparent in the usual drive-by glance. And yes, that’s the Pontchartrain that has been referenced in all kinds of ways, from Percy Walker’s novel The Moviegoer to Lucinda Williams’ ballad “Lake Charles.”

Here is what James Jensen, curator of contemporary art, writes about it:

African-American artist Robert Colescott’s Pontchartrain, his largest, most ambitious graphic work, takes as its title the name of New Orleans’ famed lake. Although Colescott never lived in New Orleans, his parents and grandparents were born there and it was the setting for many of his father’s stories. Along the Pontchartrain shore were speakeasies and ramshackle houses. His father played a jazz concert at a picnic there with the young Louis Armstrong, and the concert continued on a boat back to New Orleans.

“I always thought it was just one of my father’s stories,” Colescott said, “but later I spoke to Louis Armstrong at one of his concerts and he remembered my father and that infamous picnic.”

"Pontchartrain" (detail)

“Pontchartrain” (detail)

An enigmatic narrative unfolds across the pictorial space of Pontchartrain. Among the figures is an open-mouthed nude woman rolling her eyes, and two men conversing, secretively it seems. Also embedded in the cascade of imagery are a big face and a pink bra, a hamburger, a hand pointing a gun at a paint can labled “sex,” and another paint can labled “race.” The bra reappears on a smiling, dancing woman, there is a second hand with a gun—this time pulling the trigger—and two Aladdin’s lamps have genies coming out of them with looks of surprise. Commenting on the work, Colescott said,”Sex and race, those are my raw materials. That’s why they’re in the paint pots. It’s allusive, not a description that’s complete in itself. In a way, it’s biographical. And there’s some self-parody, making fun of myself.”

Regarding the lamps, Colescott remarked, “…you’d better be careful what you wish. You might get it.”

Robert Colescott (American, 1925-2009)
Pontchartrain, 1997 (details)
Aquatint, etching, drypoint on paper
Gift of Thurston and Sharon Twigg-Smith, 2014(2014-35-07)