Warrington Colescott & The Whitney Biennial

Warrington Colescott, The Last JudgmentWarrington Colescott, The Last Judgement (1987-1988), intaglio and color relief, 27-1/2″ x 21.8″; courtesy The Painting Center

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There are more important things in life than art. That’s the lesson of the current Whitney Biennial. I think that’s the lesson, anyway. Certainly, featured artist Zoe Strauss must know it’s the truth. Her untitled video installation projects photographs of the people and environs of Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., documenting what she saw while aiding medical professionals responding to Hurricane Katrina.

Ms. Strauss’ credo is: “Social responsibility is inextricable from art making.” That’s a shopworn proposition favored by those who think good intentions can redeem lousy art. Ms. Strauss’ photos of vernacular signage and Mississippi’s poorest inhabitants amid heartbreaking destruction are pedestrian in their pictorial intelligence. She’s no Walker Evans.

All the same, Ms. Strauss was out there in Katrina’s awful wake, outside the privileged confines of the Whitney Museum, providing necessary support to Americans in desperate circumstances. In art, Ms. Strauss preaches to the converted, but in life she makes a difference. That’s something to applaud.

It is, in fact, the only thing to applaud in Day for Night, the first Biennial to (a) have a title, (b) have been organized by foreign-born curators, and (c) include foreign-born artists. The show also includes dead painters (Ed Paschke for one), the requisite amount of teenagers with freshly minted MFA’s, and significant sculptors who should know better. Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero demean their considerable gifts in the service of puerile anti-Bush screeds. They’ve got a right to be angry, but has either man put his conscience into action like Ms. Strauss? You’ve got to wonder.

But what’s the difference? One of the great delusions of the art world is that the Biennial has something to do with art. Spectacle, fed by money, is the focus. Art merely supplements the fashionable poses and received resentments of an insular crowd so enamored of itself. The critical huzzahs greeting the Biennial are predictable: Apologists for official culture will do anything to obscure its aesthetic bankruptcy.

As usual, the Biennial is a benchmark, but rather than indicating art’s continuing vitality, it is just another celebration of everything wrong with today’s self-congratulatory scene.

Any Biennial that neglects the work of Warrington Colescott is a piss-poor excuse for an overview of American art. Who is he, you might ask? I’m still not sure. He lives and works in Wisconsin—you know, fly-over territory to most curators—and he exhibits only intermittently here in the city. On the rare occasions that I cross paths with his pieces, usually an etching of some sort, I leave a changed man. Happier, too—Mr. Colescott is something of a card.

A profound one, I’d quickly add. The Last Judgment (1987-88) is an intaglio and color-relief print featured in Artful Jesters, an exhibition devoted to “a growing legion of parodists, satirists, lampoonists, jokers, and caricaturists” on display at the Painting Center. Mr. Colescott more than holds his own among some formidable company, not least among them Trevor Winkfield, Peter Reginato, Gladys Nilsson and Peter Saul.

In the etching, a man’s spiritual fate is decided by way of a video presentation. A devil pleads the case to God himself, who’s pictured as a sleek, executive type. The Last Judgment is stuffed with pictorial incident and imagery—Mr. Colescott is a printmaker of stunningly soft-spoken means. You’ve got to love the devil-angel-devil-angel lineup ready to accuse and defend the souls of the newly departed.

The guy whose lot is being determined has got it coming—the this-is-your-life moments seen on the television screens are maliciously over the top. (Vehicular homicide is the least, but not the funniest, of the offenses.) The wonder is the amount of consideration given to the verdict. The word “HELL” appears on God’s computer screen. Chin in one hand, his right index finger hovers hesitantly above the “return” key. Clearly, God likes to mull things over.

Mr. Colescott is not a satirist, cartoonist or Red Grooms, though he resembles each. (Mr. Grooms is also included in Artful Jesters.) He’s a mischievous humanist with a bottomless appreciation for the absurdities of life and, in this case, the afterlife. He’s as many-sided and unsentimental as Twain, Hogarth or Bosch. I suspect his oeuvre contains more sharp insights and cunning amusements than I can begin to imagine; I wish a New York City museum would consider fêting Mr. Colescott with a retrospective. A task like that is clearly beyond the people at the Whitney—their loss as much as ours.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 26, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

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