Robert Colescott's Haircut
Artworks are judged in many ways but one of them, the ability to remain fresh,
emblematic or poignant after standing the test of time seems to trump all of the
others. Happily, time has not blunted the sting of Robert Colescott's irreverent
and boldly direct work.
, a onetime Portlander, seems to be one of the few contemporary
artists capable of achieving that feat, maybe because so many of today's young
whippersnappers like Cecily Brown, Inka Essenhigh, Kara Walker, Daniel
or even cartoons like The Family Guy seem to be following in his
iconoclastic "equal opportunity offender" footsteps.
As the 1997
Venice Biennale representative for the US
he took shots at everyone, whites,
blacks, construction workers, salesmen, Coca Cola, sex and the priesthood etc.
Sometimes he took on all of these subects at once. Colescott creates a kind of pantheon of human failings
and there are no "sacred cows" for Colescott (though I grew up amazed
by the sheer ferocity of a painting with that very title at The Milwaukee Art
Museum). Back in 1989, being an overeducated upper middle class gypsy+barbarian+blue-blooded
mutt white boy I appreciated how he sycretically laid it out in vibrant, isn't the world
weird colors while referencing old sacred friezes in Europe. Then I realized
those friezes had their roots in Egyptian and Assyrian art. It all suddenly
made sense; contemporary art was about the disorder of the present while often
referencing forms that implied order and authority in the past.
Now Figurative painting is big again but artists like John
and Inka Essenhigh are still relatively pleasant conversationalists
compared to Colescott.Haircut
The show on view through tomorrow is a museum level survey of his late 80's
and early 90's output leading off with 1989's Haircut
. It's a sumptuous painting, though nary an inch of it is flattering. The nearly full length figure, a blond
woman in a helmet and armored brazier is surrounded by people's faces. Is she
Justice? Some of the faces are nicely coifed office workers others are being
held a gunpoint or lounging back smoking a big cigar. The words; angel, capitalist,
boss, worker and slave are written on the canvas as well. All but "angel"
are written on a series of steps. Sure this is a caricature, but it's a caricature
of the work place power dynamics that still exist today. The message is, don't
stand out fit in and America is still an essentially puritanical country which
ads a sinister homogenizing tint to the great American melting pot. Instead
of cosmopolitanism, a kind of puritanical, waspish suburbanism still reigns.
Other large paintings like the Judgement Of Paris
and At The Bathers's
Pool: Apparition of Venus
both mock and pay tribute to the European old
master allegories as well.All Roads Lead to Rome
Works on paper like Sepic River Stay Away From the Door
or Light Opera
are even more brash than the canvases. All Roads Lead To
seems particularly poignant as the central black is brutally stabbed
surrounded by words like "would not" and "not me". It makes
me wonder about America's current political situation with a very unpopular
president. I constantly hear people say, "I didn't vote for him."
Ok fair, but have Americans really demanded strong leaders since Clinton? People
like Gore, Kerry and Bush are hardly new blood and when it has arisen, in the
form of John McCain and Howard Dean the Republican and Democratic Parties have
both pulled off their own Et
moments. It makes Dana Schutz look tame even though I like
her and her work.
Other Paintings like Oil Man
, where Lady L (Liberty?) is bound and gagged
in a chair seem completely current as well.Oil Man
1990 (Left) & At The Bathers's Pool: Apparition of Venus
Though Colescott can be shrill there is evenhandedness about his satire and
my favorite work in the show is A Fool There Was Europe - Africa
The swirling black red cloud of groping humans is in the shape of the continent.
Is it about aids, overpopulation, the slave trade, colonialism, diamond trades,
and genocide. Sure and though the painting is from 1992 it seems like nothing
Currently Colescott is taken for granted and in most major museum's collections.
He is America's Jorg Immendorf, and if anything he's the painterly conscience
we as a country so desperately need. He is America's greatest living societal
Last day of show: Dec 23rd 2006