Honoring the life and legacy of beloved American figurative artist Robert Colescott (1925 – 2009), Blum & Poe, Los Angeles is currently exhibiting a sweeping retrospective of this satirical painter and draughtsman’s most celebrated works. Bristling with saturated tangerine, crimson, and aquamarine hues, these scathing yet sanguine images brilliantly satirize American race and gender dynamics while fusing surrealist, pop art, and abstract expressionist aesthetics.
Organized thematically, this poignant and witty collection divides Colescott’s nearly sixty-year career into four distinct and significant categories. The first of which centers around notions of hedonism and societal inequality. Painted in the mid-1970s, these nine large-scale works on canvas immediately entice the eye and delve into the triumphs and tragedies of American culture with an emphasis on patriotism, cowboys, sex, and racial stereotypes.
In 1978’s Bombs Bursting in Air, four women sing the national anthem in festive red, white, and blue costumes while the lead performer’s ample breasts look as if they are about to burst out of her corset top. Resembling a line-up of can-can dancers with their striped, bloomer-esque shorts, these seductive figures echo French draughtsman Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s dizzying depictions of the scandalous goings on at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
In 1977’s Midnight at the Mustang Ranch, the viewer is brought obliquely into a libidinous backroom of the most celebrated brothel in the country. As the first legal bordello in Nevada, this notorious den of carnal pleasure serves as a colorful stage for a frolicsome group scene. Here, four lingerie-clad ladies-of-the-night seduce a man in long johns, a cowboy hat, and spurred boots. He eagerly looks upon an emerald green curtain as a woman’s seductive leg peeks out from behind.
Colescott’s bare, cartoonish, perhaps even crude objectification of women is again in delightful display (from an artistic perspective) in 1978’s Ok Mr. Philips, where two female office workers take direction from a male boss smoking a cigar. His slicked-back hair and vulgar stare alert the viewer to his role as the stereotypical sleazy manager. With the recent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in mind, it is both inspiring and heartbreaking to look back on this chilling depiction of workplace misogyny and sexual harassment and contemplate what has and has not changed in the past forty years.
1973’s Peeping Tom also features the theme of the male gaze but does so in the form of an early-century racially stereotyped African-American man peeking through a white woman’s bedroom window. His lustful ogling goes unnoticed as she struts about the room in sheer lingerie.
While this first Blum & Poe gallery space reveals a uniquely American take on race and vice, the second offers Colescott’s iconoclastic reimaginings of Renoir and Cézanne’s renowned nude bathers. Colescott developed a lifelong appreciation of 19th-century painting while stationed in France and Germany during World War II. The viewer can clearly recognize this admiration in these six colossal acrylic works the dubbed the “Bathers” (1984-5).
In an act of empowerment, here the artist replaces several of the white women in the originals with Africanized ones, therefore reappropriating Western art history. However, the African mask-like faces seen in these works are undoubtedly reminiscent of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Rife with intensity, Picasso’s brothel scene is not at all seductive, but frightening as the women stare directly back at the implied male viewer.
Meanwhile, Colescott’s subjects are depicted as strong yet peaceful protagonists blissfully frolicking on a rocky shore. This series challenges the notion that beauty is reserved for white women as he inverts the age-old seductive yet elegant female bather trope. Art historians believe the subject of the bather first emerged during the Renaissance as a way to depict Aphrodite, the goddess of sacred and profane love. Italian painter Sandro Botticelli famously depicted her emerging from a clamshell after being born at sea in The Birth of Venus (1486). Nude yet innocent and lovely, she is hailed as the embodiment of classical beauty. In Colescott’s Ancient Goddesses and the Contest for Classic Purity from 1985, the artist presents five nude bathers of bronze and golden skin wading in azure waters. The central figure’s flaming red eyes and hair recall the distinctive features of Yemoja, an African river goddess comparable to Venus.
These paintings of love, beauty, and equality greatly contrast with the violent stabbings and shootings seen in the third gallery. Stepping outside the realm of Western art and culture, this collection of acrylic works depict revolutionaries and criminals from around the globe. In Colescott’s 1971 depiction of Mexican revolutionary and guerrilla leader Pancho Villa, this titular figure takes a white woman hostage in a crowded saloon amid clouds of gunsmoke and chaos. The painting recalls both Midnight at the Mustang Ranch and Peeping Tom in its debaucherous and stereotypically racist imagery while ignoring Villa’s legacy as a hero who famously resisted two authoritarian regimes.
Installation view, courtesy of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles. Photos by Sam Kahn.
Finally, the fourth gallery features over a dozen preliminary sketches of several previously seen works in graphite and colored pencil, offering the viewer the rare chance to peer inside Colescott’s mind and creative process.
While Robert Colescott’s cartoonish paintings and drawings in this exhibition may beg some difficult questions about prejudice, standards of beauty, violence, and moral integrity, they are also vibrant, humorous, and jazz-like in their visual cadence, making it impossible to look away and ignore their significant and perennial social messages.
All Colescott artwork courtesy of © Estate of Robert Colescott/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.