November 24th, 2013  |  Published in November 2013  |  1 Comment


By  Shawn Daniell

Initially I was drawn to Thunder-Sky Gallery’s newest exhibit, SUPERUNKOWN: The Neo-Folk Impulse, because of the mysterious and surreal title. To me the title had a space-age mystery about it, as if I was about to step into a new, fantastical world in which things were not as they seem. Perhaps my eyes would be taking in something bizarre and yet magical. What I stepped into was a space populated by artists, although each created art in vastly different styles, united in the same philosophy. Leigh Cooney, the curator of Superuknown, sums up the theme behind his show in his essay, “We Don’t Know What Else to Do: Leigh Cooney on “Superunknown: the Neo-Folk Impulse”, “Each artist has some quality to their work either physically or spiritually that borrows, pays homage, or otherwise embodies in a natural way (with little forethought or deliberation) the work of Outsider and especially folk artists.”

Cooney, a Canadian self-taught artist, took up painting full-time four years ago. There’s a sense of loneliness and raw emotional weight to Cooney’s paintings. I was particularly struck by “Self Portrait with Gumball Machine” created in 2012. Instead of having the top of the head resemble a normal person’s head, Cooney has a gumball machine stand in its place. A dialogue bubble emerges with the text, “this is no surrealist symbolism you fools…this is my LIFE.” There’s something off balance about the whole thing; notice that he holds one gumball in his hand as if to eat it, almost symbolically eating his own mind. The colors are fabulous, the reds and pinks make the gumballs delectable to see and perhaps eat. It adds a whole other meaning to food for thought or should I say thought for food. But perhaps Cooney is playfully referencing some critics’ point of view of pop styled art being nothing more than candy; colorful and pretty to look at but not much underneath it. Or perhaps he’s holding out a thought and saying to the world “Hey, this is no laughing matter. This is a piece of me!” Or perhaps the artist is exploring his ADHD. There’s so many ways to interpret Cooney’s painting and as Lady Gaga says in her song Artpop, “My Artpop could mean anything,” a very postmodern way of looking at art and the meanings it conveys.

Leigh isn’t the only artist in his family; his brother Rolo is just as talented, working mostly with acrylics on canvas. He creates images that are humorous, laden with pop-culture references, and disturbing to behold. For instance in “It was Christmas Eve and Lorraine had promised to try on her new Teddy,” Rolo has a man lounging on a bed as a figure dressed in a giant teddy bear costume enters the room. The man looks frightened as the giant teddy bear, presumably his wife or girlfriend, looks on with a creepy teddy bear smile as she reaches to turn out the lights. I love how this painting plays with the ideas of a teddy, a lacey garment worn to seduce men, and a teddy bear, an object associated with childhood and innocence. Another thing that I I really like about Rolo’s pieces is that you notice something different each time you view them. As I took a closer look I saw that on the dresser drawers there stands erect and ready for use a dildo and a pair of hand cuffs. Things apparently get kinky in this household.

Andrea Heimer, an artist from Montana, works with acrylic on wood, creating dark and troubling images of suburbia. Initially I was drawn to “Birthday Party on Beech Street” because of my love of stuffed animals. No judging, there’s nothing wrong with a 36 years-old’s love of stuffed animals. But looking closer I wasn’t really sure what was going on. A lone female, a young girl, teenager, or woman (we can’t really tell) has her back to us. She is naked from the waist down. The room is full of stuffed animals, on the dresser, the bed, the floor, and shelves. All of the toys stare back at the viewer in eerie silence. The wallpaper is also made up of eyes that stare wide-eyed at the viewer. Those eyes make me wonder what has happened. What did we, the viewer, miss? This seems like an awfully lonely scene. Viewing her paintings, which have a collage-like look to them, I couldn’t help loving the elements that resembled swathes of patterned fabric, creating a quilt-like quality.

Bill Ross, who co-founded Thunder-Sky Gallery with Keith Banner, is an artist in his own right. I saw Ross’s work a couple of years ago and fell in love with his use of color and the whimsical, animal and cupcake populated worlds he creates. His newest series, “Spirit Animals”, is a meditation on a recent trip to the former site of his childhood home. An empty house becomes a new “home” to local wildlife. A living room is bombarded by a menacing grizzly bear, squirrels scamper in an abandoned bedroom, and a deer forces its way through walls on the way to God knows where. There was a sense of sadness and abandonment that I felt ran through this series of images. I thought of the viewer as an urban explorer and this was these were the scenes we came upon. All of Ross’s images are all done in deliciously, vibrant colors. If I could dip my fingers in the colors I would.

I was really impressed with the caliber of artwork on display. The artwork featured in this exhibit included work by: Leigh Cooney, Rolo Cooney, Mike Egan, Andrea Heimer, Ben Kehoe, Marc Lambert, Bill Ross, and Matthew Waldeck. Cooney has managed to amass a group of diversely, talented creators. For him it wasn’t about fitting into the mold of outsider art. “These artists and I are not inside and we are not outside, but we are creating because much like the Outsiders, Folkies, Visionaries, and cast-offs before us we don’t know what else to do.” Superunknown: The Neo-Folk Impulse is on display at the Thunder-Sky gallery through December 14. For gallery hours and more information about this show, visit their website for more details.



  1. Leigh Cooney says:

    November 25th, 2013at 10:43 am(#)

    A very insightful review. You’ve made me question my own work, thank you.

    Leigh (of the Cooney Brothers)