Relief Pictures

Ken Coon takes a break from Cleveland images to explore the peaks and valleys of Americana.

Works by Ken Coon. Pentagon Gallery, 3102 Mayfield Road. Through September 25, 216-321-3362.
The early twentieth-century composer Camille Saint-Saëns departed from his complicated piano works when he created Carnival of the Animals. The witty picture of animal life in sound was also the bane of his existence. He actually tried to suppress its publication, fearing that if it got out, people would tag him as a composer of tangy miniatures and ignore his more obviously serious stuff.

Artists in late twentieth-century America don't want to be typecast any more than their counterparts in fin de si&eagrave;cle Paris did. Take local artist Ken Coon, whose most recent body of work is now on view at Pentagon Gallery in Cleveland Heights (as part of a group show that also includes sculptures by Joni Cozzens and paintings by Nathalie Worthington). The 37-year-old Coon is known locally for paintings that document local mainstays like the Corbo bakery and Old Erie Street Bookstore in painstaking detail.

Coon's most recent body of work, however, is a step in a different direction. In lieu of his customary photographic realism, these modest works go for a gauzy dreamlike aura with touches of whimsy thrown in for contrast. Coon's aim seems to be to use an untutored approach, as a folk singer would use an untutored voice — as a tool for stripping away rhetoric and getting at truths that are frequently overlooked. Coon avoids any hint of rhetoric, but his points have been made better by myriad artists in the past.

For example, Ohio artist Charles Burchfield in the '20s and '30s wove intricate variations around the theme of small-town life. Salem, Ohio, in his hands became a grim place full of corrugated iron shops, disgruntled farmers, and ominous railways. Coon's current collection does not aim at that kind of local grounding: You get the feeling that these rural scenes could take place in any region of the United States. Fathers and sons canoeing, farmers attempting to rescue their land from a fire, and still lifes of tools in a shed suggest old-fashioned virtues of simplicity, endurance, and appreciation of the land.

The problem is that, where Burchfield and others personalized these concepts (and, along the way, found fissures in the American armor), Coon's work often seems merely illustrative. The good news is that a handful of works at Pentagon blend nostalgia with satire to fine effect. When that happens, Coon's solid craftsmanship is not merely an end in itself, but a means for recalling a simpler time.

Although some of these works have the appeal of a Depression-era folk object, Coon's painting of a group of farmers scrambling to the site of a brushfire has little to do with the dustbowl days of the Depression nor does it have any particular associations with contemporary problems. Rather, "Brush Fire" gives us a generic view of the advantages of community. The work nevertheless is thought-provoking, because the artist draws a clever formal analogy between the homespun dignity of his tool-toting farmers and the technique he has brought to bear in creating this scene.

The fierce dedication to labor that is celebrated in this painting is echoed in the way that Coon has literally carved his Masonite canvas as if it were a piece of wood, creating peaks and valleys to which he then applies his paint. This labor-intensive preparation of the canvas is like a farmer's clearing of the soil before planting seeds. The resulting craftsmanlike orderliness suggests what one commentator on folk art has aptly termed "the precision of the hand and not the machine."

Daydreaming is the subject of the Hopperesque oil relief called "Lost the Game." Here, Coon paints a young boy watching television in a sparsely furnished room, while in the background, beyond an open window, a couple of factory smokestacks punctuate a bleak cityscape. The title might refer to a ball game on the tube that has just ended — or, more broadly, it could refer to the boy's forlorn expression as he rests his hands on his chin and stares forward into space.

Edward Hopper specialized in this kind of bleak material. When he painted a nude woman looking out of her apartment window, he caught the harsh morning sun as it glinted off her body and, by reducing the room to its simplest architectural features, managed to create images of stark simplicity that were charged with poetic implications. Coon's young boy is not part of a harsh urban morality play, as were Hopper's men and women: He's just lost in thought. The relief method, so successful in "Brush Fire," seems to be a mere caprice in this work. It was an organic part of the other painting's message; here one wonders why it is being employed.

By contrast, "Girl and Cat Dreaming" is a piece that combines whimsy with conceptual focus. Here the artist depicts a young woman curled up on the floor with a pillow, having an afternoon catnap. Her curves are echoed in the shape of a sofa in the background. The room has a television set in one corner but, in a humorous touch, shows only a desert-like wasteland. The sleeping woman is surrounded by rectangles of varying sizes that run along the borders of the painting. These slots are like jigsaw pieces that, when viewed in totality, give us clues about the personality of the woman shown and hint at the contents of her dreams. These slots hold images of cars, alarm clocks, airplanes, churches, school buildings, and farm animals. Also included is a portrait of a man. The work effectively gives the viewer a glimpse of the subject's life beyond the moment captured on canvas. It's one of Coon's better pieces at Pentagon.

The artist's skills as a colorist are on display in a work called "Jack-O-Lantern." His pumpkin is both a humorous tribute to Halloween and a respectful nod at American decorative traditions. What's interesting is that, once again, Coon's relief style merges well with his subject. Just as you sculpt a pumpkin to make a jack-o'-lantern, Coon has sculpted his canvas in imitation of that procedure. He has rendered the fleshy orange innards of the pumpkin with uncanny accuracy — it looks as though the canvas consists of pieces of pumpkin. Although the subject itself isn't noteworthy, it's the way the artist has manipulated the paint that makes the work compelling. This is art that gleefully avoids rhetorical gestures.

There were many artists in the '20s and '30s who took this approach. In fact, the whole regionalist movement began because a group of artists wanted to reexamine its cultural roots and the role that art played in defining those roots. Predictably, a bitter debate ensued as terms like "regionalist" came to signify, for some, the keeping of the traditional American flame, while others insisted that they signaled a denial of the whole modernist tradition. In this exhibit, Ken Coon is obviously in the former camp. Like the regionalists of the '30s, his works dignify everyday life. But where the regionalists were tied to a particular place, Coon's more generalized approach suggests that he's less concerned with place than the feelings that people have about places.

Coon's journey into homespun America yields images different in tone and subject matter from his Cleveland works, but this need not cause alarm. In fact, it's a good sign when artists branch out in new directions. But it's not an easy thing to do well. Coon succeeds much of the time with what he calls his "little brown paintings." Still, artists like Burchfield and Hopper said it first and said it better.

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