The wispy, poetic tentativeness of Zoe Charlton’s figures recalls the soft focus of Gerhard Richter. But where Richter’s objective was to question the meaning of painting, Charlton’s two paintings and 24 drawings at Wendy Cooper question the nature of identity, especially as determined by culture. In the painting Three Grace Tryout (2000), three black women do the cancan in the foreground while three white women cluster behind them. The figures are all somewhat sketchy, their softly variegated skin echoing the patchy background. But one of the black women’s heads appears to be dissolving–even more than the other blacks, whose skin blends into the surrounding browns, she seems on the brink of total dissolution. Charlton’s work has an edge, but it’s also humorous. The painting . . . Wish You Were Here, Betty and John (2000) shows a water-skiing white couple being towed by a clipper, apparently a slave ship since there’s a brown hand rising from the water nearby.

Charlton first encountered the Graces in a Rubens painting as an undergrad. She also began noting that blacks were seldom pictured. “I’m not represented in earlier European paintings,” she says, “except maybe as a servant.” Up to the age of nine, she wasn’t much aware of race. Her father was in the air force, and she grew up on military bases around the world, including four years in Okinawa. When the family moved to California, a kid started throwing rocks at her twin brother, and their mom asked what color he was. “I didn’t know what she meant,” Charlton says. “I hadn’t thought in terms of race.” Her parents started telling them stories of their own youth: they’d grown up in Tallahassee in the 1940s and gone to segregated schools. Charlton’s maternal grandmother had raised nine children alone, working as a maid for a white family.

Charlton, who loved art, didn’t know of any African-American artists until high school, when she saw a Robert Colescott piece. He remains a favorite, she says, for his “commenting on history, rewriting of history, as in George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware.” She was doing routine work as an art major until her third year, when an African-American instructor, sculptor Ed Love, was blunt with her: “He said, ‘Doing this work is not going to mean anything. Really think about what you want to say.’ I painted a black woman with a pressing comb for straightening her hair. Her hair was straight on one side and Afro on the other, and she was being lifted by a woman with a huge Afro–rescued by an Afro angel. It was my first really original painting. At the time I had long straight hair down to my shoulders that I straightened every couple of weeks.” In grad school Charlton became intrigued by racist and sexist jokes because, she says, they “pinpoint the stereotypes.” She began looking at joke books and, she says, asking people at parties to “tell me the worst joke they knew.”

Two of the five drawings from Charlton’s “Undercover” series displayed here show African-Americans dressed in KKK outfits; the series is partly inspired by the 1934 film Imitation of Life, in which a black girl tries to pass for white. “I was interested in the idea of passing and subversion,” Charlton says. “I have relatives who could have passed and didn’t.” Other drawings include black, pointed, abstracted versions of clipper prows that look like strap-ons, a mix that reminds her of “manifest destiny and leisure travel.” In Destiny (2006) a tree-shaped air freshener dangles from the tip of a strap-on, which springs from the midsection of a man disappearing into the pale background. Now teaching at American University, Charlton sees a lot of white men in suits in D.C. but lives in a white blue-collar area of Baltimore, where a neighbor regularly gets drunk and yells. He “might be annoying,” she says, “but it’s great for my work.” She recently started a series that combines the two types, “showing men in business suits who look like they’re stumbling.”

Zoe Charlton

When: Through 7/15

Where: Wendy Cooper, 119 N. Peoria, #2D

Info: 312-455-1195