Equally satirical and shocking, Robert Colescott’s paintings look cunningly back at their observer, awaiting a response. Art and Race Matters, which runs at the Contemporary Arts Center through Jan. 12, is the first retrospective to span the artist’s career from 1949 to his death in 2009. The first African-American artist to receive a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale, Colescott explored popular culture as it relates to the black experience, exposing underlying prejudice through a transgressive lens.
The exhibition feels as relevant as ever, addressing controversial issues with Colescott’s blend of exploitation and absurd humor. Lowery Stokes Sims, a longtime associate of Colescott’s, curated the retrospective alongside historian Matthew Weseley, accumulating 85 paintings from over five decades of work.
Colescott’s most prolific period, covering the ’70s and ’80s, shows keen prescience while appropriating a wide range of styles and cultural allusions from the past. The most incisive works from this period parody the greatest hits of the western canon — Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Matisse’s “Dance,” Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” — rendering their subjects in blackface while borrowing aesthetic cues from Jazz-era cartoons and the Bay Area’s underground comix explosion of the late ’60s.
“Eat Dem Taters,” a 1975 riff on Vincent van Gogh’s austere “The Potato Eaters,” interrupts the original’s muted earth tones with Colescott’s re-imagined title displayed in cartoon typeface. There’s a stark contrast between the humble solemnity of Van Gogh’s portrayal of Dutch peasants to Colescott’s sardonic employment of grotesque, smiling stereotypes — one that’s long been reflected in representations of the working class.
“I was attacking the myth of the ‘happy darkie,’ ” Colescott told ARTnews in 2003. “It’s been all too convenient for white people to believe that black people can sing, laugh, dance and be happy even in the most dire circumstances.”
The earlier portion of the exhibition, beginning with Colescott’s graduation from the University of California, Berkeley in 1949, traces his initial experiments in cubist abstraction to his first forays into the colorful, folksy style he’d develop over the course of his career.
“Other surveys of (Colescott’s) work did things in 10-year increments,” Sims says. “But, never before have we had a show that shows the ’40s and ’50s. One of the things, as Matthew and I were going through the wonderful stuff that had gotten revealed, was how some of the ideas that we think about Colescott — appropriating art, which we thought started in the ’70s — was actually going on in the ’60s.”
The 1962 piece “From a Fragment Sargent”, which zooms in and crops the left corner of John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” abridges the original’s realism into a flat, eerie stare-down with a young girl. “Olympia,” completed in 1959, reorganizes Manet’s painting of the same title to depict its white subject and black servant as equals.
Just as revelatory are the works produced during Colescott’s trips to Egypt from 1964 to 1967. “We Await Thee,” composed with oils pilfered from house painters, envisions a surreal tangle of bodies and spirits in the crevices of a desert landscape. “Nubian Queen,” painted two years later, ventures into fauvist territory, depicting an ancient burial ground as an ascending tapestry of reds, greens and pinks.
The later selections in Colescott’s retrospective demonstrate a loosening of style as well as the development of a rich vocabulary of imagery, which allowed for more complex commentary. “Choctaw Nickel,” from 1994, is among the most visually engaging of these.
Art and Race Matters concludes with a brief survey of Colescott’s work in the early 2000s, when the artist faced the challenges of working with Parkinson’s disease. “Sleeping Beauty,” from 2002, is the last and largest of these, a return to stream-of-conscious abstraction that tangles wiry figures into a curtain’s fold of blood-red acrylics. It’s a departure from the crowded tableaux of his earlier work, figures that may or may not be human bursting into pyrotechnic deconstructions against a blank rift.
Art and Race Matters is on view at the Contemporary Arts Center through Jan. 12, 2020. More info: contemporaryartscenter.org.