LOS ANGELES — In Robert Colescott’s “Portrait of the Artist at 85,” the late painter, who passed away at 83 in 2009, depicts himself seated in front of a tall, white canvas, applying messy strokes of pinkish cream. A buxom blonde wearing nothing but red heels poses in front of a window. The brushstrokes on the canvas seem distracted and uncoordinated, as if the artist’s hand is less concerned with representing the subject and more interested in acting out some libidinal impulse.
During his lifetime, Colescott reached the heights of a master painter, blending figuration and abstraction and becoming one of the first prominent artists to embed black bodies and social critique into the art historical canon. That he would paint himself as an aging lecher, working on yet another female nude portrait, seemingly belies his considerable body of work while speaking to his madcap, if not abrasive, brand of humor.
A retrospective at Blum & Poe brings together paintings and drawings that lay out in frank and acerbic terms a snapshot of American racism and misogyny. Whether the art serves to critique or reinforce them depends on how much one can stomach racial caricatures and sexualized women for satirical effect. “Peeping Tom,” for example, contains a black man peeking through a window to catch a glimpse of a young blonde woman dressed in a negligee. The man is rendered as a cartoonish specter of black male predation of white women — a simple pair of eyes and red lips with hands pressed against the glass.
Similar gags recur in other works, with women of varying age and race inviting the gaze of lascivious men. “Mom’s Old Fashioned Root Beer” features an old woman exposing her thighs to a man who looks on with a toothy grin, using innuendo and the idiom of advertising to suggest how commerce can exploit base desires and simple aspirations. In “Black Capitalism: Afro American Spaghetti,” the image of a black family enjoying a meal promises domestic bliss and even racial pride. The painting’s title, however, suggests the absurdity and hollowness of empowerment through consumer choice and material consumption.
Race and sex are hypervisible in Colescott’s paintings. They insist on viewers examining who they expect to see in positions of power or as objects of desire, and are unsparing in their willingness to punch up and down for comic effect. Both black and white people are inserted into cartoonish visions of the United States, whether it’s the jingoistic tableau of “Bombs Bursting in Air” or cowboys eating around a campfire in “Texas Chili.”
There’s an uneasy air in these works, as if their scenes are setups for a punchline to a crude joke. They also take on the defensive stance of a comedian who might claim that their prerogative is not political correctness or justice, but comedy or, in this case, art. In this regard, the self-portrait of Colescott painting a female nude portrait into his late age aligns with his gallows humor and pessimistic outlook. Decades have passed since these paintings first held up a mirror to the ugliness of race and sex in the US. If the rest of society won’t change, why should he?
Robert Colescott continues at Blum & Poe (2727 La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles) through April 28.