Warrington Colescott

Warrington Colescott is a master caricaturist. Together with that of his brother, Robert (who died last year), Warrington’s daily practice of probing, prodding, and reappropriating culture, history, and politics has produced a nearly boundless trove of comical social critique. Evincing a shared love for barbs and jokes, the work of both artists demonstrates a palpable confidence, a maximizing of the bitingly satiric narration that drives their inventive compositions. But while Robert had a natural facility with paint, employing bold color and erratic brushwork, Warrington found his place in the print studio, and the agility with which he combined etching techniques has yielded a rich and dense integration of line, color, and texture.

In this comprehensive fifty-year retrospective, “Warrington Colescott: Cabaret, Comedy, and Satire,” the elder brother’s career is chronicled from his days spent mucking around in the abstract tradition of the early to mid-twentieth century (the quick illustrative tableaux à la Dufy, thick black contours reminiscent of Dubuffet) to the more fluidly limned tableaux of the past few years. While Colescott’s irreverent hand appears more present with age, his interest in technically expanding the language of printmaking is apparent right from the start, notably evidenced in Fisherman, 1950, in which he pairs color screenprinting and frottage to yield an impression of actual thread that serves as the work’s pictorial fishing line.

As the exhibition unfolds, doubling proves to be a hallmark of Colescott’s oeuvre. Freely poking at regional mores, he deftly subverts the purported significance of revered cultural traditions to reveal what lies beneath. For example, in The Hunt: Steensland’s Drive, 1980, Colescott humorously undercuts this annual deer chase (and beloved rural Wisconsin tradition) by depicting a herd of safety-orange-suited men toting rifles in pursuit of a single fleeing whitetail. Populating a snowy rural landscape with more fluorescent figures than natural elements, Colescott makes light of the commercialism and artificiality that have come to dominate the sport. This strategy is also evident in such recent works as Sunday Service, 2001, in which Colescott takes on another regional passion, Packer football. Followed religiously in Wisconsin, where Colescott has resided for sixty-one years, the pastime is almost gleefully perverted by the eighty-nine-year-old artist, made grotesque as it is reduced to a hovering entanglement of colossal bodies tearing at one another’s limbs. In this work, helmets and pads give forceful mass to the Green Bay Packers, who, clad in green and gold, scrimmage against their longtime rivals, the Chicago Bears. Below, a mingling crowd of stereotypical tailgaters eats bratwurst and drinks beer while wearing foam cheeseheads. But Colescott just as readily implicates his more personal social context. Having taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, from 1949 to 1986, he knows well the hollow significance of the routine faculty exhibition. So even if by name Night of Artists, 1986, holds some promise of erudition and class, it is shown by Colescott stripped to its base theatrics—a wonderfully preposterous throng of self-congratulatory professors admiring their own work at a university art museum, where bow ties, Brie, and cheap wine are expected to nonetheless speak of cultural excellence. But Colescott’s keen mind for the local tackles larger arenas with equal savvy. In Underneath the Oval Office, 2004, we see Dick Cheney staring out from the center of a White House scene that crosses multiple registers: At top is the Oval Office, complete with armed security, Fox News reporters, and presidential staff drawn as windup toys, keys bulging from their backs; while below, two lower levels house covert intelligence planning, torture, and officially sanctioned criminalities. The most devious activities are reserved for the bottom rung, cleverly identified by a sign that reads: UNIVERSITY RESEARCH GRANTS.

With the precision and panache of Hogarth and Daumier, Colescott’s transgressive humor and rancorous depictions of even the most banal conventions expose our intrinsic shortcomings and our acquired prejudices. Though Warrington’s younger brother may have influenced the likes of Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, and Carroll Dunham, his own impact is yet to be determined; but for everyone fortunate enough to have seen this retrospective, his work could not help but hit home.

Michelle Grabner