A black man crouches between the legs of a blonde, his tongue out, “How ’bout this?” scrawled above his head. She (a pink version of a Picasso-style African mask) answers, “My Mom’s calling me!” If ribald interracial sex were all the African American Colescott (born 1925) delivered, his work might be dismissed as underground comix on canvas. But this student of Ferdinand Léger once watched Diego Rivera paint a mural, and politically charged figures (a wildly unpopular genre at the time Colescott matured, under abstract expressionism’s hegemony) have filled his compositions with lush imagery ever since. Seven feet high, The Sphinx Speaks (1993) portrays men, women, and a skeleton in jagged magenta-and-black stripes. A small, naked white male whispers devilishly into the ear of black minstrel-like man who has huge white eyes, thick pink lips wrapped around a cigar, and is wearing a red-and-blue-striped tie that counterpoints a rainbow in the opposite quadrant of the canvas. Second Thoughts on Eternity (1991) includes a golden Anubis (Colescott once studied and taught in Egypt); a smiling, bearded white Godhead; a frowning, white-bearded black man; and, prominently, a chick with a dick. These complex paintings offer enigmatic tales to be unraveled and righteous polemics to be considered, while transcending their outrageousness with balls-out beauty.
‘Ambroise Vollard: Patron of the Avant-Garde’
The French art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1867–1939) championed some of art’s heaviest hitters: Cézanne, Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso. Highlights of work that passed through the French dealer’s hands include a portrait of Madame Cézanne; her husband has painted her in a high-collared, tightly knotted gown the color of dried blood, her hair pulled severely back, her fingers stiffly entwined—less a muse than a goad. A particularly unhinged van Gogh night scene fixates on orange city lights striating black and blue water; a small, dark couple on the beach stares out at the viewer as if posing for a snapshot. Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave, 212-535-7710. Through Jan 7.
Although shot in black-and-white, these 2 1/2 x 3–foot photographs hark back to earlier landscape painting—say, a 19th-century Constable with tumbledown cottage and overgrown fields abutting towering trees. Conniff seeks out similar intersections of civilization and nature: In a Mississippi scene, telephone wires plunge down a dark, encroaching valley under steely clouds with radiant, sweeping edges. Another work veers into abstraction with the verve of calligraphy—bare branches and spidery vines are scribbled across a gray field that recedes into a distant white limbo. Candace Dwan, 24 W 57th, 212-315-0065. Through Nov 4.
Trapped air bubbles fizz from pills sealed in a thick coat of resin; a bird of prey, its feathers a resplendent collage of flower photographs, pins a snake, itself a writhing mass of smaller serpent images, to a tree branch. Tomaselli crams his large paintings with actual objects (painted trees sprout real leaves and the shiny resin heightens every vein) and cutouts from magazines and medical texts, then adds swirling loops and mandalas of bright gouache to achieve a visual overload that is strangely quiet and reflective—a slow-motion hallucination. James Cohan, 533 W 26th, 212-714-9500. Through Nov 11.
Watercolor is a technically brutal medium (every stroke must be right, since mistakes can’t be erased or scraped down), which makes these majestic images of Italian churches all the more thrilling. Creswell sketches his compositions in pencil and then applies vibrant color with deft, lively brushwork. Painstaking observation captures the bursts of sunlight that enlivened sacred spaces before electricity; he is keenly sensitive to the reflection of light from statue to sacristy to stairwell, and the way these glowing surfaces adulterate shadows in the recesses of marble architecture. This painterly high-wire act continues amid the trusses and girders of the Queensboro Bridge, its anchoring stone arch and iron roadbed a radiant orange in the sunrise.
Hirschl & Adler, 21 E 70th, 212-535-8810. Through Nov 4.
Liselot van der Heijden
This artist from the Netherlands is as outraged by the Bush administration as many Americans. You enter the gallery by pushing aside a glowing scrim on which a snake winding and unwinding inside a white box is projected; a second video features two white mice skittering around an apple. A real-time feed from a tiny surveillance camera creates a third projection, adding the viewer’s image to these symbols of sin and curruption. A nearby TV plays a loop of the president’s State of the Union speeches, edited so the word evil is proclaimed over and over again and closing with “God is near.” Even more frightening than the commander in chief’s biblical absolutism is the thunderous applause it evokes. LMAK Projects, 526 W 26th, 212-255-9707. Through Nov 11.
Witkin’s photographic grotesqueries channel the classical past: A beautiful woman with amputated arms becomes a modern Venus de Milo, accessorized with bra and pet dog; Queer Saint (1999) imagines an arrow-pierced human skeleton topped by an animal skull, the only flesh a large, drooping penis. With their distressed, stained backgrounds, these black-and-white prints feel like daguerreotype curiosities, and Witkin’s staging of nudes (some with grievous wounds) amid flowing fabrics and vaguely exotic trappings recalls the DIY tableaux vivants of East Village theater genius Jack Smith. Keith de Lellis, 47 E 68th, 212-327-1482. Through Nov 25.