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Demons, visionaries, explorers, showgirls, schemers — these are some of the archetypal figures that appear in the works of Wisconsin printmaker Warrington Colescott.
Marked by an interest in innovative techniques and bawdy satire, Colescott’s challenging and witty works have buoyed him to national attention. “Warrington Colescott: Cabaret, Comedy & Satire”, a retrospective of his art on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum through October 3, tracks his career from his studies as a painter at the University of California at Berkeley — where he also drew editorial cartoons for two of the school’s student publications — through the present. Colescott, 89, is still making prints out of his Hollandale, Wisc. studio, and producing editorial cartoons for The Progressive, a left-wing political magazine based in Madison.
From the start, Colescott’s unconventional techniques, particularly his use of found materials, set his etchings apart. Mary Weaver Chapin, the curator of the MAM exhibit, describes an instance when he incorporated a toy motorcycle, belonging to his son, into a print: “He just inked it up and passed it through the press, crunching it under great pressure as it passed through, to create this deeply embossed image of a motorcycle rider,” she said.
“I affectionately think of him as a Magpie. If he sees something shiny and interesting, he’ll pick it up and throw it into his mix of printmaking skills,” such as bits of letterpress plates he’s picked up from other printers around Madison, says Chapin.
Hear more from curator Mary Weaver Chapin on the works of Warrington Colescott:
In an artist statement, he wrote that he is interested in “that black zone between tragedy and high comedy, where a little pull or push one way or the other can transmute screams into laughter.”
Among his subjects: A soldier writes a letter home to his mother admitting that he made a “boo boo” today setting off a missile. Pilgrims and American Indians dance cheek to cheek at the First Thanksgiving, ignoring the witches who are being tortured in the background. Ben Franklin enthusiastically demonstrates a printing press to buxom, wigged women at Versailles. The deceased fly “Air Death” en route to their Last Judgment, while skeletal stewardesses light their complimentary cigarettes.
For Colescott, history is fodder to be challenged, examined, and, when it suits him, re-invented: his riotous images often do so with full, imaginary narrative arcs behind them.
Like the showgirls and temptresses he often images, his works make use of the idea of burlesque, where history is the star of the striptease and the tension between imagination and revelation is amplified. Laid bare, he shows how history can be fleshy, vulgar, and a complicated performance.
“If you seduce,” Colescott is quoted in the exhibit catalog, “do it with wit and creativity. If you attack, do it with skill. If you educate, do your research. As a satirist, I try to have a lot of eye, good hands, and plenty of attitude.”