The George Adams Gallery is pleased to present an exhibition of paintings and works on paper by the late artist, Robert Colescott (1925-2009). Celebrated for his incisive send-ups of art-historical tropes and the experience of being a Black man in the United States, Colescott’s paintings continue to engage and provoke. This exhibition will feature works predominantly from the 1990s, a period which encompasses his selection in 1997 as representative of the United States at the 47th Venice Biennale.
Race is at the center of Colescott’s paintings as a meaty, many-faceted concern that he tackles from every direction. His language is one of stereotypes and appropriation, used to often-comic effect while lampooning the basis of such prejudices. Weaving figures into complex, narrative sequences that combine aspects of current events, racial politics and popular culture, Colescott brings to light the inherent contradictions of society while refusing to shirk from the less than savory aspects. From the late 1980s on, his paintings grew more complex in their compositions and layering of vignettes, references and regions of bold color. In a conversation from 1989, Colescott noted this shift, explaining, “the more years I take on, the more aware I am of the complexities of it all, of life, of art, and of my reactions.”
One of the more pervasive subjects of Colescott’s work is inter-racial tensions, particularly in the context of sex - as he put it, “you can’t talk about race without talking sex in America.” In the painting Frankly My Dear... I Don’t Give a Damn (1990) he references the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind” and its famous line. While one of the most lauded films in history, since its release, “Gone With the Wind” has been infamous for its problematic depiction of slavery. In the foreground of the painting, a Rhett Butler-esque man cradles a swooning woman - not the heroine of the film but a Black woman in a check dress and turban, presumably meant to indicate her servitude. Here Colescott is subverting the central love story of the movie, co-opting Butler’s parting line into a defiance of racial prejudices. Such considerations also appear in Blues’ Angel (1990), picturing a suave Black singer with a white woman in a blue dress looking on. The title is likely a reference to the New York nightclub, The Blue Angel, which opened in 1943 and was one of the first de-segregated clubs in the city. Colescott may also be playing with the name - in her blue dress, is it the woman or the singer who is the “Angel” here?
Beyond such controversial references, other, more mainstream cultural icons appear in Colescott’s work, including Dagwood Bumstead (1996), the everyman of comic fame, preparing to bite into his signature sandwich while his wife Blondie looks on disapprovingly. In a more biographical turn, the painting Signs and Monuments (Kilroy) (1999) incorporates a number of personal references while more broadly offering a send up of capitalism. The ‘Kilroy’ of the title derives from a popular graffiti tag employed by service men during WWII. Usually written as “Kilroy was here” along with a cartoon of a man peering over a wall, Colescott, who served in the Army during the war and most certainly was familiar with the image, reproduces the tag with few alterations besides abbreviating the line. Elsewhere in the painting, a bloated cartoon face features the caption ‘The Sphinx’ and a few outlines of pyramids round out the allusion to Colescott’s time spent in Cairo in the late ‘60s – a formative experience.
While Colescott spent less than two years in Egypt, the effect was profound. His study of Egyptian art, both ancient and contemporary, informed his approach to figurative painting, including the emergence of race as a subject that he would go on to finesse after his return to the States in 1969. It also marked a stylistic shift: his use of acrylics over oils and an increasingly colorful palette, both of which characterize Colescott’s work for the rest of of his career. Particularly in his later works, there is a balance of expressionistic passages and a biting, very American satire. As Colescott described it, the result is “an integrated ‘one-two punch’,” where the first impact is “‘Oh wow!’ And then, ‘oh shit!’ when they see what they have to deal with in subject matter.”