Few artists in the history of American art have shouldered the mantle of cultural critique with as much humor, deadly seriousness, and aplomb as Robert Colescott. Throughout his long career, he has confronted the divisive subjects of race and sex head-on in his colorfully expressionist paintings that betray an extensive knowledge of art history and the sociopolitical consequences of discrimination and its global partner, colonialism. Since the mid-1970s, when Colescott began appropriating the compositions of masterpieces such as Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), and Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885), he has engaged in “blackfacing” and satire by replacing their subjects with Aunt Jemimas, pickaninnies, minstrels, and other overtly racist characters. Clearly objectionable, these gross exaggerations and distortions are used by Colescott to undermine cultural myths. The artist has acknowledged that he is “pushing the standards of taste. I’m exploiting stereotypes, questioning the heroic in art. I use humor as bait, pulling you in to confront the social comment. The visual joke alone is a sidetrack. There’s another layer.” His inflammatory and ironical tactics also subvert the iconic status of these paintings by exposing the dominant discourse that produced them.
In the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, Colescott made the transition from revisionist history painting into somewhat more hermetic and personal subject matter. While based on the same set of issues that had long concerned him, his repertoire of subjects expanded to take on religion, castration, ethnicity, and miscegenation, among many others. In the Walker Art Center’s painting Exotique (1994), Colescott mines the problematic concepts of exoticism and “the other” through three figural pairings. Anchoring the composition is an enigmatic yellow-and-white silhouetted form suggestive of the yin and yang symbol, which may have been employed by the artist to suggest the interdependence of the female principle with the male. To the right, a ridiculous-looking Frenchman exchanges words with a black woman who wears a colorful dress made from what appear to be African textiles. His voracious gaze and wandering hands attempt to take possession of her. “You are so exotic, dear madame!!,” he flatters, to which she retorts with the more politically correct, “If you please, dear sir!! Afrocentric!!!” Up above, an elongated purple figure positioned in the classic pose of the odalisque responds to them both, exclaiming, “Yo tambien!” (Me too!) (in Spanish, Pablo Picasso’s native tongue). The Picassoid mask and a strange anthropomorphic black cat are thinly veiled references to two paintings from art history that have been identified by scholars as brothel scenes in which race and gender provide fruitful avenues of interpretation: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), respectively. The final pair at the lower left—a robed, praying figure speaking Arabic to a large, fair-skinned nude woman—reinforces the construct of the exotic “other” as the source of both fear and fascination, an emblem of difference that is both demonized and romanticized. Despite all attempts at communication, Colescott’s figures seem hopelessly trapped in a centrifuge of cultural misunderstanding. In a 1987 statement on his work, the artist concluded that rather than providing a panacea, “the paintings end up devouring themselves in the final irony.” In Colescott’s world, perhaps this is all we should expect.