Sanchez Cumbas utilizes the compositional elements of painting — texture, shape, color — to create works that move beyond ideas of reductive abstraction as pure or medium-specific. These ideas, formed primarily in the mid-20th century, celebrated a narrow view of abstract painting, championing work devoid of symbol and reference. Sanchez Cumbas, however, injects his abstract compositions with explorations of important contemporary cultural issues. His heavily tactile and layered paintings spring from complex identity politics and are informed by his Puerto Rican heritage. In his most recent work, the artist directly confronts “colorism.” The term is described by scholar Ibram X. Kendi in his 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist as “a collection of racist policies that cause inequities between Light people and Dark people, and these inequities are substantiated by racist ideas about Light and Dark people. Colorism, like all forms of racism, rationalizes inequities with racist ideas, claiming the inequities between Dark people and Light people are not due to racist policy but are based in what is wrong or right with each group of people.” Considering these inequities, Sanchez Cumbas often employs a range of colors related to human skin, from deep umbers to tans and beiges, basing his works on personal experiences and narratives related to colorism.
The title of the exhibition takes its name from the central painting on view. The work, while small in scale, juts out into space with its chunky, accumulated layers of paint in myriad colors, from muted green and subtle brown to deep maroon and saturated yellow. This work, like many of the artist’s paintings, rejects the inherent “flatness” of the traditional picture plane, offering viewers an objecthood and corporeality more akin to their own bodies than to painting and image-making. The top layer of this work is a swath of beige-pink, a color commonly associated with Caucasian skin. Beiges have historically been the unchecked default “flesh tone” of everything from Crayola crayons to makeup foundation to academic painting instruction. In titling the work No. This Is Not the Color of Flesh, Sanchez Cumbas both confronts and negates the concept of beige as the assumed human coloring. By finishing the top layer of the work in this color yet roughly exposing the multihued underlayers on the sides of the work, the artist suggests the tragic violence and suppression of rich culture that occurs when societies place a higher value on those with lighter skin.