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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





. . . his works communicate to the viewer a real affection
for those vignettes or individual objects that display beauty
or nobility in the abstract qualities of their materials
and in their existence as part of a greater, thriving whole
that keeps the eye active and engaged.

W. 12th, a 1992 gouache painting on paper, is a fine example of the work of Robert Cottingham (b. 1935), an artist usually categorized as belonging to the movement known as Photorealism.  Photorealism as a style rose to prominence in the 1970’s and involved the artists affiliated with the movement creating works that not only offered extremely realistic depictions of various subjects, but also replicated visual elements arising from the photographic process.  In other words, photorealist artists strove for faithful representations not so much of objects and scenes as those objects and scenes recorded photographically.  The wit and challenge of photorealistic work comes from (typically) painted creations representing areas out of focus, an overall color palette faded or curiously unreal due to the often peculiar characteristics and appearance of photographic pigments (especially as they change over time), and areas overexposed presumably by light entering the camera body during the taking of the photograph that served as the inspiration or source image.  In addition, photorealist works preserve the casual arrangements or compositions often seen in snapshots and seem to be preoccupied with depicting highly reflective man-made surfaces that introduce passages of abstract patterning to further infuse these works with a spirit of questioning the nature of representation.  While Cottingham’s paintings are certainly realistic and deal with the visual textures and properties of man-made materials in the urban landscape, his creations seem to reflect a direct interest in the arrangement or particular object of emphasis he extracts from the din of visual detail found in the environments that interest him.  Cottingham does use a camera to frame and capture areas of the cityscape that he identifies as inspiring, but his focus is not apparently directed toward presenting aspects of photography’s unique vocabulary.  Rather, his works communicate to the viewer a real affection for those vignettes or individual objects that display beauty or nobility in the abstract qualities of their materials and in their existence as part of a greater, thriving whole that keeps the eye active and engaged.
    Cottingham’s art, then, relates significantly to the warm visions of Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis in their artistic explorations of the city and feels less fundamentally connected to the cool and brittle ironies of his photorealist colleagues in their deadpan and strangely disturbing treatments of reality as seen through an intermediary documentary device prone to dramatic distortions.  Photorealism as a movement further builds upon the distanced perspective first established by Pop Art, whereas Cottingham’s art reads as an invitation to see and delight in the intricacies and unique rewards to be found in small portions of the city’s tapestry.  The signs and portions of architectural detail feel like they relate to a human or lived existence and thus metaphorically speak to viewers in ways that lure them in emotionally, rather than hold them at arm’s length through a more intellectual exercise.  Cottingham’s paintings are seamlessly executed and highly refined in technique, as are virtually all photorealist works.  However, his pieces seem not to lie sealed beneath a conceptual layer that asserts photographic intervention; rather, they demonstrate an artist seeing and selecting and encouraging others to modify their focus to find worth in those items that, in their commonness, cease to be seen either in isolation or as part of a context.
    Cottingham frequently chooses a particular subject or item (a sign or letter, for example) to be the central object of attention, as if the painting were a portrait of this chosen object.  W. 12th, however, is more generalized in its distribution of components.  Some of these components, such as the street sign, the walk sign, and the beer and Pepsi signs, are specifically represented, enabling viewers to locate themselves conceptually through recognition.  Overall, though, the highly compressed space in the picture, the blue-gray color that unifies the painting from top to bottom, and the lack of visible ground and sky all work together to create the impression that while the specificity of the scene is important to the artist, the scene’s existence as an active abstraction scintillating with bits of color and areas of darkness and shadow is as much a part of its fascination for artist and viewer.  Thus, while Cottingham finds pleasure and interest in the city’s wealth of disparate details, he is able to blend this pleasure and interest arising out of a delight with man-made textures and commercial design with a keen sense of abstract compositional arrangement.  The two perspectives work well together and provide a point of identification or understanding for Cottingham’s art: the reality of the place and viewers’ recognition of that reality as they have experienced it grounds the picture in life and actuality, while the artist’s compositional and coloristic decisions reflect a degree of stylization that moves the picture simultaneously into an arena of formal considerations and design elements.  W. 12th occupies a ground where it can be seen and understood as a carefully transcribed body of lights and darks, colors and tones, arranged in a busily intriguing fashion in a shallow pictorial field, and at the same time a street corner that wears its history, its vitality, in its jumble of component parts that each have their own identity but speak with most force as part of the city’s mosaic.
    Of particular interest in this example of Cottingham’s work is his use of gouache as a medium.  Gouache is a water-based pigment similar to tempera or acrylic paints that dries to a flat yet pearly finish and that does not blend with the ease of oil paint.  Gouache must be carefully layered to achieve a translucent opacity and requires a slow and deliberate manner of application to maximize its ability to achieve illusionistic effects.  For Cottingham, then, the act of creating W. 12th is an act of devotion to a context or environment that fascinates him, and to the notion of the exterior world offering in its seeming chaos balanced arrangements of color and shape more complex and multi-faceted than the imagination could conceive.  Each stroke of gouache painstakingly layered onto the various forms in the picture symbolically represent human contributions and natural effects over the years that give his slices of urban landscape depth, substance, and a lovely patina that viewers can feel and appreciate even if they may have never thought to consider such time-based effects as being possible aspects of beauty.  The recognition of truth through the artist’s veracity to his subject, his virtuoso use of his medium, and a formally satisfying composition is what draws viewers toward the picture and what encourages them to see in a more attentive and analytical fashion.
    Cottingham, through W. 12th, examines the works of art and design that constitute the city, itself a sprawling creative product that ages and weathers alongside its human inhabitants.  From that examination, the artist offers an opportunity to marvel at the shift that takes place between formal considerations and emotion or empathy-based understandings.  His faithful recording of the elements in the scene, all vibrating together in a shallow space that feels like the environment within a cubist creation, is a call for viewers of the painting to slow the internal pace enough to feel the vibrancy and continuity of the grand collaborative installation that is the city.  Cottingham, through W. 12th’s jewel-like colors and relatively small scale, seems to indicate that in every corner, every detail, one can find material for experiencing sensory delight and appreciating the complexity of human endeavor as it unfolds in time.

© by Gregg Hertzlieb


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