at Perimeter Gallery

Warrington Colescott is a California-based printmaker with a long and distinguished career. His current show of large watercolors and etchings at Perimeter Gallery displays a confident dexterity that only time and diligence can give an artist. But it’s Colescott’s subject matter that draws us in by greasing our mental gears. In the tradition of Goya and Daumier, Colescott is a political satirist. His present works are visualizations of a number of divisive contemporary problems, which he treats in an irreverent hit-and-run manner that makes us laugh even as we try to define where we stand on the serious issues raised.

Like most visual satirists, Colescott achieves wry humor through the exaggerated drawing style of caricature. His people are usually large and blocky. Their faces and hands express basic emotions and gestures, but they’re drawn cartoon-flat instead of being realistically modeled. In the watercolor pieces Colescott draws the figures’ basic shapes in a fine black outline, then fills in various parts with clear, gorgeous colors. He stays neatly within the outlines but brushes in the color with an impressive controlled bravura. Watercolor is not a popular medium among today’s artists, perhaps because it has traditionally been used to render a romantic, delicate mood that is out of step with our hard-edged cynicism. But Colescott uses the medium aggressively, mixing strongly saturated colors. He exploits watercolor’s physical properties to the fullest by letting some colors blend with or stain others. He also varies the brush stroke so that some areas are meticulously painted while others are flippant–quick and loose. All this helps to put flesh on the outlined cartoon figures; it moves them from mere caricature into the realm of fine art.

Another important element of Colescott’s work is his approach to composition; he likes to fill his pictures with lots of people and plenty of narrative, often cataclysmic, action. This heightens the fun while establishing a broad social base for the content. For instance An Attack by Animal Activists depicts a nightlife scene in which well-heeled urbanites have just left their cabs and limos to attend an environmental benefit at a large theater. Women in furs and their escorts in top hats and black coats are being accosted by costumed activists.The masquerading marauders toss buckets of red paint on the fur coats and slice at them with scissors as the women wearing them try to flee. A few dogs get into the act, gnawing at an upper-crust ankle here, tearing at an enemy coat there. The social decorum of the charity event has dissolved into a violent melee. Colescott further pumps up the melodrama by skewing the composition’s perspective. In the background, the lines of the theater and other buildings on the street lean in different directions. They look as though they are about to collapse backward or forward, perhaps onto the affluent fur-coat class by whom and for whom they were built.

The obvious irony of wearing a fur coat to an environmental benefit points didactically to the difference between what people do and what they say they believe. But it seems almost impossible to live daily life while maintaining a perfect one-to-one correspondence between action and principle. So where do we draw reasonable lines? Fur coats are a sad and horrible symbol of unnecessary exploitation, but what about the leather jacket hanging in my closet? Should I wear it, bury it, or give it to a needy person?

A similar moral dilemma is established in A Raid by Vegetarian Paramilitary. This is a gruesomely hilarious picture in which a handful of guerrilla soldiers garbed in camouflage greens crouch outside a burger joint poised to attack. Inside the store customers are voraciously eating bloody red burgers with near-orgiastic abandon. A dancing couple, a pregnant woman, a man at the jukebox, customers sitting on stools at the counter–all have lips and teeth smeared red by the awful meat. Vivid greens, lavenders, and blues, applied with a bold and loose brush, dominate the color scheme. Fiery hues are used sparingly to highlight only the most essential elements–the bloody burgers and the shrill orange head of the whistle-blowing commando leader. Raid is a funny, beautifully rendered, provocative picture. The two opposing groups farcically represent the tug-of-war that may go on in our own minds over the issue of meat eating. It might be better for us and for the animals if we removed meat from our diets, but what fun would breakfast be without bacon and eggs, dinner without meat and potatoes? What would become of America’s sense of identity if it declared traitorous the patriotic hamburger and hot dog? Ridiculous as it sounds, some people probably would kill or die to defend their eating habits. Food and philosophy are surprisingly interrelated.

Colescott often describes his works as morality plays, and the term certainly applies to the current show. Other topics to which he applies his satirical brush include handgun control, the “justice” doled out by the Supreme Court, the NEA jury system, natural disasters in resort areas, and the professional legacy of Sigmund Freud. The encouraging, evil-looking chimeras hanging on the necks of customers in At the Gun Store make Colescott’s position on that issue crystal clear. He paints an equally clear and negative opinion of America’s justice system in The Supremes in Session. Here a group of white-haired, black-robed justices presides casually over a slovenly postlunch jury table. Bailiffs in black S and M masks and bikini briefs conduct a line of abject individuals, chained and naked, before the bench one by one. In the hellacious red background several people hang from the ceiling by ropes or are otherwise tortured. This is Colescott’s grimmest picture, satire in its bleakest, most hopeless manifestation. The uncaring judges seem to have absolute power. The plaintiffs and defendants are victims stripped literally and figuratively of all power to fight or disagree. A haloed figure in religious robes looks down upon the scene from an upper balcony but never intercedes. Even religious belief fails to override the justices’ tyranny.

Speaking of religion, Colescott gives the Almighty a contemporary look in God Destroys the Hyatt Waikoloa Resort. At the right edge of this tropically colored picture He stands blowing a whistle as a large white hotel collapses into a lovely blue sea filled with happy vacationers. It seems like a straightforward poke at our penchant for congregating in exotic places that are highly vulnerable to natural disasters like earthquakes, avalanches, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions. However, Colescott’s image of God as a modern, sporty-looking chap cleverly reverses the biblical statement that “God created man in His own image.” Man creating his own picture of God is a more accurate assessment of the situation.

Colescott’s watercolor pieces outshine his etched prints. This is unexpected given the artist’s decades of devotion to serial printing techniques like drypoint, serigraphy, and color etching. His satirical content, caricature drawing style, and detail-rich compositional approach remain constant, but the etching process obviously restricts him. We miss the brushy strokes and watery blendings that activate the watercolors. The etched prints are more muted in tone and less varied in texture. Colescott continues to define his shapes through outlining, but the etched lines are rougher and stiffer because he is using a steel tool to incise the composition into a metal plate. The technique simply can’t produce the same fluidity as a hand-guided brush moving color over a two-dimensional surface. But etching’s ability to produce multiple identical prints from the same plate has other obvious advantages that one-of-a-kind paintings do not.

The best of Colescott’s etched prints are two similar versions of catastrophe at sea, both called The Raft of the Titanic. From one version to the other he changes the overall color scheme from blues and grays to greens and grays. Some figures are switched from the left in the blue picture to the right in the green one. The green picture also has a bar scene in the background. Otherwise the basic characters and actions are the same. As the hull of the once-great ship sinks in the background, would-be survivors swim desperately through the icy water toward a large makeshift raft in the foreground. The raft holds a number of people but is surrounded by giant sea creatures–a polar bear, a walrus, a whale–that seem about to jump on board. Survivors on the raft handle the dire situation in various ways: some dance, some play cards, others chat. One man grieves over a dead friend who lies naked in his arms. Since most of Colescott’s subjects revolve around contemporary themes, it is curious that he chose to depict this historic event. Perhaps he intends it as a general metaphor of doom and gloom to warn us against our own social and technological arrogance. In Greek mythology hubris was the one human sin the gods would not forgive. As the unsinkable ship sank, the technologically advanced society can be destroyed.

In contrast to the show’s general focus on cultural critique, two small etchings depict cheerful farmers’ market scenes with no apparent satirical intent. Crowds of people buying and selling fresh produce seem to enjoy the sunny day. The prints are awash in reds, oranges, yellows, and greens. They are arranged so as to be the last works one sees before leaving the gallery. Their banal gaiety seems incongruous with the rest of the show. Perhaps they are meant to function like mints after a heavy repast.

Warrington Colescott is not afraid of didacticism, and I’m glad of it. A little heavy-handedness in art can stir up some much-needed debate; but it works best when accompanied by real artistic skill, and Colescott has plenty of that. It is a rare pleasure to see contemporary issues vigorously tackled in such tradition-laden media as watercolor and etching. It is also gratifying to see a long-established artist continuing to bite off challenging new material instead of merely repeating the kind of work he made in previous glory years. Colescott seems to forge ahead, constantly engaging us with timely and humorous images.