Tony Coleing

Julie Green Gallery

Tony Coleing’s new paintings are set full-tilt against the present. Oblivious to all self-critical imperatives, they are satiric, they are savage, and they don’t care that we already feel disdain for their targets. Coleing knows that we are not angry enough. Cocktales, 1991, has the subtlety of an adolescent’s antiwar wet dream. Here, Planet Earth is fissured by ecological and military catastrophe. A galactic cocktail glass rises into space. Instead of alcohol, it contains an inferno of burning oil. Tiny figures sit at the drink’s rim, perched on stiltlike swizzle sticks. Oil, the Gulf War, nuclear destruction, and late capitalism’s rapacity are the subject of all the paintings in this exhibition. The icons that Coleing employs serve doubly as signs of an activist narrative as well as evidence of his contempt for art. Minute dinosaurs and satellites dot the sky behind Earth. These emblems of history, science, and industry are cursorily established as prints from rubber stamps. Visual puns abound, but they are deliberately those of the school yard: the destructive sexuality implied in the title, or a Stealth bomber with claws in Watch Out. . . Out. . . Out, 1990–91. These surfaces are the most distressed that I have seen in a long time. Cocktales is primarily a giant, malevolent cartoon on unstretched canvas tacked to the gallery walls, painted in deliberately nasty, dull acrylic.

Coleing has been around for a long time. He first gained attention in the late ’60s with a series of pseudo-Minimal sculptures in which a degree of sexuality and humor was sufficiently ambiguous to allow a temporary insertion into formalist discourse. For the last two decades, however, in installations like his controversial Yellow-cake stall at the 1980 Venice Biennale, and an extended series of prints and large drawings, he has worked with overtly political subject matter. Many of his pictures reflect his anger at the continuing French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, as shown by the title of this exhibition “M.A.D,” an acronym for “Mutually Assured Destruction.”

If, as Donald Kuspit observes, the parodic is criticality’s dead end, then until recently Coleing has found himself out on a lonely activist limb. Now that politically engaged art is recovering some credibility, we are able to see distinctions between artists like Sue Coe and Coleing. Both work in the traditional media of Expressionist art, and both rail against clearly recognized targets like racism and the military. Unlike Coe, Coleing makes pictures that are appallingly ugly; this is the extraordinary way by which this exhibition escapes self-righteousness. Coleing has now jettisoned all signs of good art. Earlier works on paper, like the pieces he showed in the “International Survey of Painting and Sculpture” at MoMA in 1984, preserved an involuntary, spidery beauty. The current pictures, however, are genuinely antiesthetic. The flipness of a skateboard rider falling into a sea of boiling oil in Beware of Camels with Volcano Humps, 1990, is underscored by a mudslide of dirty color and insistently crass, stereotypical symbolism. Nothing here is ennobled: the skateboard rider stands in for ourselves as the observers of ecological catastrophe, but he is also a clumsy fool. One is hard-pressed to find a single comforting metaphor or anesthetic sentiment, but contrary to the first impression, this is not accessible public imagery. The language is coded and dense. Coleing refuses any pleasure or positive quality in his visual field; the paintings are so hostile that they implicitly denounce their own position on the gallery walls.

Charles Green