Cincinnati Everyday at the Cincinnati Art Museum
By Emil Robinson
Cincinnati Everyday is currently on exhibition at the Cincinnati art Museum. The show pairs two Cincinnati natives, artists Courttney Cooper and Cole Carothers. Cooper is represented by three large ballpoint pen drawings on collaged paper, and Carothers displays five oil on wood paintings. This is local bellwether Matt Distel’s debut show as the new adjunct curator of contemporary art. The show runs until September 22.
Cartography has always been a practice of prioritization. Maps are made to focus on a particular aspect or aspects of a place: topography, geography, politics, or weather, are all conventional themes for maps. In Cincinnati Everyday contemporary artists Courttney Cooper and Cole Carothers both practice a kind of personal cartography.
Cooper’s works are maps of memory, mind, mood, and mythology. His work in the show consists of the same bird’s eye view of Cincinnati created serially in 2009, 2010, and 2011. The works are all ballpoint pen on collaged printer paper. With the passing of each year Cooper takes in more information and the maps grow accordingly, both in scale and density. Cooper is an artist who needs to assert the tangibility of his place in the world. His drawings communicate a mixture of emotions and compulsive documentation. By drawing as many buildings, landmarks, and streets as he can remember, he builds evidence of his own existence. There is a feeling of almost “automatic writing” in the hand at work in these drawings. Cooper layers writing upon drawing, drawing upon writing as if troubled by the boundaries between physical and psychological reality. He does not value one of these worlds over the other. Instead he moves between his feelings/memories of experiences in a place and the physical place itself. In places the buildings take over and in other places the writing is dominant. In this way his works are deeply personal and emotionally vulnerable. The sheer density of information makes clear his devotion to his creation. From across the room, works such as Cincinnati Map 2011, ballpoint pen on paper, 2011, quiver and shimmer like the hide of some giant creature. Cities are made by people and in Cooper’s work the city takes on the organic nature of a living body.
In Cincinnati Map 2011 Cooper puts Northgate mall in the upper left, Hyde Park in the upper right, Saint Luke Hospital in Kentucky in the bottom right, and 275 in the bottom left. Strewn throughout the landscape are phrases from memory and the subconscious. Some are touching reminders such as the phrase: “mommie’s super precious” half buried under buildings. Others recall guilt inspiring reminders: “Do Not make me slammed and break that giant German Oktoberfest Bavarian Blue Giant Beer Mug.” Cooper is obviously fascinated with Cincinnati’s Identity as a German city. By far the most prevalent message covering the map is: “Zinzinnati Ohio USA.” Although, flying over the Ohio River Cooper also writes the words: “Take That You Germans!” perhaps recalling World War II sentiments. It is clear that map making is a catharsis for this artist, and the results are a revelation.
As examples of cartography, the five large oil paintings by Cole Carothers are strictly unconventional. They can be compared to maps, because like Cooper, Carothers is showing a large swatch of how the buildings, streets, and land fit together. Also like Cooper, Carothers chooses to look down at the city from on high. Unlike Cooper, Carothers creates a specific vantage point for the viewer. Where Cooper is trying to assert his own existence, Carothers is trying to find a spot to stand that will allow him to feel lost in his experience. My two favorite paintings in the show, Radio,Radio, oil on wood, 2012 and Juggernaut, oil on wood, 2007 both originated from one location high up in the Carew Tower. Carothers recently told the story of how he found the spot. He had hoped to get on the observation deck at the top of the building to get a good view. Arriving at the elevator he found himself riding with drywall workers. He talked to them and found out that they were working on a top floor of the building. He went up with them and spent time on a floor being remodeled. Radio, Radio looks northeast from this spot and Juggernaut looks southwest.
Juggernaut depicts the industrial artery of the city and a tension is created between the beautiful composition and the grittiness of the content. After spending time with the work I found myself slightly sickened at the sight of how the ragged edge of the city, a sinuous twist of highways and industry, inserts itself into the surrounding land. The effect is that of an IV leaching the land to feed the city.
Radio, Radio is a study in surface and illusion. From across the room, the painting is an incredible show of realistic painting as the crowd of buildings jumble away to the Northeast like toy boxes. Two dark buildings flank the foreground and serve to compress the mass of the city. The inspirations for Radio, Radio, and Juggernaut were originally seen through the lens of a camera and the sense of monocular vision is striking in its ability to organize space. Objects generally recede in scale and detail as they move back into space, while their straight lines converge towards the eye level. It is only upon closer inspection that the physicality and accidental nature of the paint application takes over. It is mildly shocking to view Radio,Radio up close. What seems initially to be perfect perspective careens off in different directions, and the gestural marks that describe the mass of buildings below threatens to swell to the surface of the painting. The effect is particularly powerful because of the deep space that the painting communicates from a distance. The statement on the wall outside the gallery mentions that Carothers is a “classically trained” painter. I asked the artist about this statement, as I understood him to be mainly self-taught. His response was vintage: “If I have been classically trained then I am a very bad student.” Carothers went to school at a time when the prevalent teaching was the language of abstract expressionism. That is his training, and it is the activity of ab ex painting that holds his realist works in their peculiar emulsion.
With Cincinnati Everyday, Curator Matt Distel turns a neat hat trick. The work is accessible to the normal museum visitor, the artists are local, and the criticality and quality of the art is top notch. I am excited to see more from our new adjunct curator.