Friday, December 14, 2007

Unexpected arrivals

Donal Cole at ArtXchange

published in Art Access, December 2007

pictured: "Rupas (Forms) acrylic on canvas by Donald Cole

Donald Cole knows a little something about the juxtaposition of abstract shapes on a flat surface. He knows a little something about sunburnt colors and the layering of surfaces in shallow space, and about all the mark-making tools at a painter’s disposal, like stippling and scraping and the careful laying on of paint.

At least that’s what his paintings look like when viewed on a computer screen. I have not yet had an opportunity to see the paintings in his show at ArtXchange, and reproductions on a Web site can sometimes be deceiving. What appear to be rough surfaces of scraped, gouged and layered paint may not be. A photograph on his Web site of Cole at work looks like he is carefully painting small details with a sable brush on an unstretched canvas that is laid across his bed. (Evidence from other painters confirms how deceiving such appearances can be. Works by JacksonPollock and Willem de Kooning, for instance, as well some of Gerhardt Richter’s abstract paintings look like they were painted with fast and furious brushstrokes, but films of them at work prove they were much more methodical than the paintings look.)
I suspect that Cole is also more methodical in his painting than a cursory glance at the work indicates, although a gallery news release does speak of his surfaces as being “distressed” and “cracked.”

Cole’s paintings are 99-percent abstract, and feature fat calligraphic shapes that look like Asian writing or ancient hieroglyphs and other iconic symbols laid on top of rock-like shapes in dull, cool blues and greens over hot reds and burnt oranges, with adjacent deep transparencies in some areas and flat, opaque shapes in others. His surfaces evoke landscapes with winding roads or rivers and frescoes on old, crumbling stone walls. The paintings look to be informed by nature as opposed to being drawn from or imitative of nature. Seldom does recognizable and intentional subject matter appear, but Indian figures show up in some of his paintings – Indians from India, not Native American Indians. And according to the gallery, the squiggly abstract writing is drawn from Asian writing. A press release states: “Cole contrasts the angular forms of Sanskit with the rounder, gestural forms of Malayalam, the language of Kerala, in south India. In the latest works, the written characters themselves become even more abstract, creating texts of Cole’s own design - shapes that mimic language, but whose meanings lie somewhere in the emotive qualities of the paintings themselves.”

Originally from New York, where he has shown in such prestigious galleries as 55 Mercer Gallery, French & Co., and the Nancy Hoffman Gallery, Cole now lives on Vashon Island. His current show at ArtXchange is called “Unpredictable Arrivals.”
“During the last twenty years my main inspiration has come from extensive travel in Asia where one is bombarded by complex layers of forms and colors and by the many creative expressions of spirituality that pervade Asian life, especially in India,” Cole writes in a personal statement on his Web site. “The signs and symbols and the effects of time and weather on the shrines and walls affect the content of my work and balance my formal concerns with human and caring concerns.”

The ArtXchange show features 23 recent paintings and one wall-size earlier work, “Rockwall,” which is a precursor of many of the more recent paintings.
“Rockwall” looks like a landscape painted in brilliant reds, blues and oranges on a stone wall shot through with white cracks. A dark blue river meanders across the top section separating walls of red and orange rock. Deep red calligraphic marks dance across the surface.

Similar marks, but looking more controlled, show up in many of his later paintings. Dark, hot and vibrant earth tones predominate, and the designs are densely packed. But two of my favorites are cooler in tone and with fewer shapes and less overlay. They are “Rupas (Forms)” and “Citi (Brick),” both of which show a few very simple organic shapes in tones of blue, green and yellow over fields of rock-like rectangles with rounded edges. In both the colors are milky and dull, with everything keyed to a middle value.

Measuring 54 by 24 inches, “Rupas” is a tall, thin painting with two large calligraphic letters that look almost like human legs. The upper “leg” drapes down from the top edge of the canvas and forms a triangle that barely kisses the edge of the lower “leg,” which looks like a raised knee. The top one is a dull, yellow-green and the bottom one the same green with hints of ochre. The yellow and green rectangles in the background are jammed together like pieces of a crude, hand-made rock puzzle. “Citi,” which is the same size and dimensions, has a pair of oval shapes in dull blue and violent jammed against the left edge of the canvas and to the right a squiggle of the same dull blue that looks like the bend of a river going nowhere or a coiled and striking snake.

“Chaun (To Transmit)” has blue and ochre letters dancing on a dark brick red background. Two of the letters look like Keith Haring figures boxing.
One of the few paintings with recognizable figures is “Echo,” which shows a dark, reddish-brown figure walking past what appears to be stone buildings with writing on the walls. The figure is comical looking, with spiked hair (or a crown) and is carrying a sword. There are marvelously deep transparencies in this painting.
Two others with obvious figures are “Shifafa (Lyric Energy)” and “Essential Nature,” both of which picture seated Indian gods (most likely Siva, the god of destruction) with overlapping transparent fields of writing. I think these suffer from being too literal, and that the more abstract images and the simpler designs are much stronger.
Donald Cole Unpredictable Arrivals runs through Dec. 29 at ArtXchange, 512 First Ave. S., Seattle.

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