New York

Robert Colescott

Phyllis Kind Gallery

With the skill of a political cartoonist, Robert Colescott draws some fine, funky lines around what lust and laughter, anger and envy bring to mixed-race relations. It might be said, in fact, that he introduces a thinking man’s perspicuity into activist art. Barely contained by their organization on the canvas, his carnival-flavored narratives can still make wholly original, often maddening cases for tolerance. Disenfranchised populations face down the oppressive forces inhabiting the art world, the “free” world, and the dimensions of their own despair.

Though his barbs generally seem to be more obvious than profound, Colescott’s elaborate paintings looked wonderfully like brazen, art-smart relatives of a Chester Himes novel. As with his bizarre, South Central recreation of Edvard Munch, The Scream: Georgia O’Keefe in L.A., 1992, some works place irreverence itself on a throne; others swell with indignation. Throughout, lopsided, concupiscent black and white bodies make mischief in each other’s sexual and cultural preserves. Heads trapped in cerise-lit flues of dark paint materialize as a kind of African-masked Greek chorus, hovering over a drama of social upheaval in which violence is golden.

In works like The Kiss, 1992, his commentary on the marginal status of black women in the art world, and the emotive A Fool There Was. . .Europe-Africa, 1992, Colescott creates stinging riffs on racial stereotyping and social injustice. Triumph of Christianity, 1993, provides a billboard-style culture-rape-for-the-sake-of-capitalism scenario, in which a scarecrow Jesus rises, genielike, over an angelic Big Mac while “native” Africans and African-Americans remain shackled to their crops of bananas and corn.

Nor does Colescott shy away from self-examination: he takes stock of his status as an accomplished black artist still on the edge of a white-dominated art establishment. Between Two Worlds, 1992, makes a particularly affecting statement on that ambiguous position, using the power of popular but exclusionary symbols (typically a blonde screen siren) to seduce even the most grounded among us into conformity and self-hatred.

That this artist attempts to avoid criticism of his caricatures of women through myriad references to Pablo Picasso et al., raises problems of its own. I’m not sure it’s useful to counter “darkie” stereotypes with equally disheartening imagery. The collection of drawings on view in the gallery downstairs, however, demonstrated Colescott’s ability to create effective protest art. Their single-subject focus carried the message of social injustice more succinctly and eloquently than the content-laden, almost overfilled paintings.

Still, given the complex harmonies and lurid pigmentations Colescott employs in his treatment of a multiplicity of sensitive social issues, these paintings make ironic visual bebop of a culture that, in its imperialist attitude toward a black esthetic, remains primarily unchanged.

Linda Yablonsky