JD Perkins

Breaking through: Robert Colescott and JD Perkin

Laura Russo Gallery shows some post-breakthrough art by Robert Colescott and J.D. Perkins

There’s a tantalizing little glimpse of Robert Colescott’s work at Laura Russo Gallery right now. Colescott (1925-2009) was an important American painter, representing the United States in the Venice Biennale in 1997. He is probably best known for his satirical paintings of the 1970s in which he, as a black artist, lampooned racist caricature stereotypes in works such as George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook, 1975, a take off on Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, by Emanuel Leutze.

In a 1999 interview, Colescott said of these overt paintings, “it’s about white perceptions of black people. And they may not be pretty. And they may be stupid…it’s satire. It’s the satire that kills the serpent, you know.” These blatant works were very controversial, and 40 years later they are still powerful for their imagery. But we should not overlook the idea that they are also powerful because they are fine paintings.

Robert Colescott, "Call to the Valley", 1965, oil on canvas, 77.5 x 58.75 inches/Courtesy Laura Russo Gallery

Robert Colescott, “Call to the Valley”, 1965, oil on canvas, 77.5 x 58.75 inches/Courtesy Laura Russo Gallery

There are none of the 1970s works in the current small show. There is a big painting from 1965, a couple of big works from the 1990s, and a few works on paper. The 1965 painting, from a time when he taught at Portland State University, Call to the Valley, (about six and a half -by-five feet) is sort of a regular painting for its day. There are ambiguous figures in an ambiguous landscape. Call to the Valley was painted when Colescott was 40 years old. It speaks of a painter dealing with then current painting issues, but not yet finding a strong individual voice. It seems that the subject matter of the 1970s gave Colescott his individualism—so he could paint like he really meant it.

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