The Trickster

Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings
Walker Art Center

Judging by his demeanor in a recent public talk, the painter Robert Colescott is a generous and thoughtful man. Yet although he projects an affability in person that instantly puts you at ease, his paintings have almost exactly the opposite effect. In both form and content, Colescott is the consummate trickster, employing all the tools at his command to make the viewer uncomfortable. There is something in this work to piss off nearly everyone, regardless of race, sex, and class, and attitude to the history and craft of painting. It's no coincidence that those categories are the primary subjects of his art.

Colescott, who is 72 and represented the United States at the 1997 Biennale in Venice, first gained notoriety in the '70s by skewering masterpieces of art history. "Eat dem Taters" parodied Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters," and American mythology came in for similar treatment in a piece titled "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware." The artist populated his work with the broadest racist stereotypes imaginable--Mammies, Sambos, and the like. These over-the-top caricatures delivered a "one-two punch" cited in a poem accompanying the show; through exaggeration they slyly critiqued both the "masterpiece" status conferred upon certain art and the racism that permeates American culture.

The paintings in this Walker exhibit of more recent work are compositionally more complex than the earlier parodies. Colescott has settled into a montage format, combining several narrative snippets into each piece. Colescott continues, though, to hammer away at hypocrisy and injustice in an irreverent manner. Several selections specifically address historical assumptions that frequently go unquestioned. One painting, "La Tango," seeks to correct the mistaken impression that the dance originated in Spanish cultures when it actually grew from African sources. Along similar lines, "A Taste of Gumbo," comments on the appropriation of a dish assumed to have developed in the melting pot of Cajun culture, but which actually comes from the cookbooks of the African diaspora. Both works express Colescott's stated desire to "give credit where credit is due."

While these pieces succeed fairly well as revisionist history, they prove less engaging for their didacticism. But Colescott manages a more open-ended tone in other works in the exhibit without sacrificing any of his acumen; paintings like "Exotique" and "Venus I" and "Venus II" ask how something as seemingly private and instinctual as sexual desire can be influenced by the social conventions of race and gender. Posing such questions is risky business, and these works have their problematic side. The preponderance of somewhat scarily voluptuous and passively nude women and the relative lack of similarly unclothed male figures begs a question: To what degree is this work a critique of sexism as opposed to an example of it? Given the shrewd intelligence of Colescott's decisions about other sensitive topics, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, but an uneasiness lingers.

That discomfort extends to Colescott's somewhat off-putting approach to his materials. One might expect paintings about the seduction of surfaces and the pleasures of the flesh to provide some tactile satisfaction, but Colescott doesn't oblige. Colors here are flat and saturated, the application is gloppy and haphazard. The articulation of skin is a mess. In sum, the style would seem to emphasize all the worst qualities of acrylic paint.

Yet, Colescott's choices ultimately may inspire something less than surprise. The pieces in this exhibition reveal an artist toying with the appeal of his medium's sensuality, and the trickster only compounds the subversion of these expectations. The viewer wants to be seduced by the surface; think of odalisques by Titian or David. Instead, Colescott asserts that, ultimately, "Venus is pigment": In other words, the ideal is not real. Reflecting a continuing allegiance to Modernism, Colescott argues that the fact of the painting is its materiality, not the thing represented. Botticelli hid that fact, opting for a smooth illusion of sexiness that persists to this day--from Vargas illustrations in Playboy to Baywatch. Colescott, in contrast, deliberately depicts figures grotesquely to emphasize the artifice of the image. And his paint application reinforces the stereotypical status of the figures he represents.

Colescott's agendas of theory, politics, and technique find the strongest meeting place in paintings that address the issue of miscegenation, where a literal mixing of sex and race gives added incisiveness to the metaphorical mixing that underlies all his work. "White Boy" and "Between Two Worlds" highlight the apprehension this society still feels about people who defy clear categorization.

"A Visit from Uncle Charlie" drives this point home in a hilariously blunt way: A literally black naked man stands in the center of the painting like a surprise, unwanted guest. He's surrounded by a visibly discomfited suburban white couple, a closet with skeleton and a cat emerged from a bag. Here, Colescott indulges in some ridiculously obvious symbolism employed to address an obvious truth. And yet for something so obvious, we haven't seen it presented in quite this way before.

Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings continues through April 5 at the Walker Art Center; call 375-7650.

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