Being There
Stepping Inside and Outside the Paintings of Cole Carothers
By John Norris

“Cat’s Away,” 2002,
mixed media on wood
“Falling Star,” 2000,
oil on wood
“Studio Window,” 2000,
oil on wood
While walking through Parsing Views, the UK Art Museum's current show of new Cole Carothers paintings is reminiscent of Jerzy Kosinski's 1971 novel, Being There.

In the book, a humble gardener named Chance unwittingly becomes a political and media sensation due to his innate ability to evade his true identity by casually allowing others to interpret him as they wish. The result is an enigmatic character whose distinct, personal clarity becomes hard to distinguish from the illusions surrounding his external persona. The still-life paintings of Cole Carothers play a similar game by placing common objects in domestic interiors which initially make perfect sense, but soon unfold as visual playgrounds where appearances can be deceptive. The result is something that seems increasingly rare in contemporary painting: works that engage the act of looking as an investigative and experimental process.

Carothers' paintings first draw you in through the objects themselves. The images portray studio interiors littered with various remnants of a painter's daily life. "Studio Window" (2000) includes a stool, a ladder, painting tools, and a pair of sneakers among countless other objects. It is here where we begin to detect Carothers' appreciation for the juxtaposition between nature and artificiality. First, the room includes a number of surfaces that reveal wood grain (floor boards, ladder, window ledges). In his artist's statement, Carothers suggests that, "an artist, like tree rings, assumes a point in time and begins to grow." Thus, these wooden surfaces seem to suggest that the painting represents a natural working process that evolves over time. Interspersed among these symbols of nature, however, are a collection of decidedly artificial, modern objects such as an extension cord, a power strip, a beer bottle, and a jar filled with Windex. And while it seems perfectly normal for all of these objects to coexist in an artist's studio, Carothers' choice to observe this marriage of natural surfaces and contemporary commodities injects each with qualities one might not expect. For example, the orange of the extension cord seems startlingly synthetic against the brown of the hardwood floor, yet the curves of the cord echo those of the wood grain as if both were derived from the same natural form. Thus, objects that would typically seem easily identifiable as natural, artificial, or man-made, have now become uncertain and up for grabs.

This sense of mystery only grows as one observes the works' spatial ambiguities. The initial indicator of the artist's interest in playing representations of space against the flatness of the picture plane may come in his use of pure verticals and horizontals. In both "Studio Window" and "Falling Star" (2000), planes and hanging objects often fall completely horizontally or vertically. So while the objects within the picture are presented in a realist fashion, the space within which they are set has clearly been composed in a much more abstract manner. This wavering balance between space and flatness repeatedly unveils itself as one examines the pictures more closely. "Falling Star" is full of these kinds of visual puns. We first see it as two side-by-side tables appear to be seen from entirely different vantage points. Furthermore, a wooden board on the lower right of the centrally-located table is rendered in perspective at one end, yet portrayed flatly on the other end. The floor tiles continue the effect as the repeated patterns are presented head on, as if the viewer were standing directly above them and looking down. Finally, the picture's principle visual conceit comes as one discovers that this entire interior is, in fact, itself a painting which is taped to the wall of a larger interior. And while this discovery might tempt one to now see the smaller space as somehow less real, the work's shifting sense of space allows both interiors to coexist in a world where perception doesn't necessarily have to correspond to the normal visual rules.

These rules continue to bend as one turns an eye towards Carothers' use of materials. For many of the larger paintings are in fact composed of several smaller panels which can exist both separately or together. This may play a role in the works' abstract compositions, as Carothers collages together several small images as opposed to establishing a rigid composition from the beginning. Thus, these pieced-together paintings seem to take shape in an intuitive, improvised manner. This notion of a picture growing on its own reflects Carothers' interest in the Fibonacci Sequence, a series of numbers that reflects the Divine Proportion (a ratio often employed in Greek art and architecture) as well as a reoccurring growth pattern found throughout nature. Carothers sometimes uses the Fibonacci Sequence to determine the growth cycle of his panels as they are transformed into a final, congruent image (pencil remnants of the Fibonacci spiral can in fact be detected in the upper right of "Falling Star"). This method again suggests the notion of the paintings arising out of a natural growth process.

However, Carothers' employment of multiple panels can also be used to create more mischievous effects. "Corner Brace" (1997) toys with this technique by placing an additional panel over the rest of the picture where a distant landscape is seen out of the interior's window. Thus, the illusion of a great recession of space is depicted on a plane that is in fact physically closer to the viewer than any other part of the picture. As a result, the artist simultaneously draws attention to both the space that exists within the image and the picture plane itself, a trompe l'oeil-like contradiction that Carothers engages again and again.

In many ways, "Cat's Away" (2002) offers a suitable centerpiece for the exhibition. The work offers a virtual role-call of both the artist's physical and visual tools. The centrally-located easel is surrounded by brushes, jars, and paint tubes. Likewise, tabletops and shelves initially fit naturally into the interior, but begin to wobble and slide as one continues to look. Finally, bits of masking tape or tracing paper plainly cover portions of the interior as if to remind us once again that, above all, we are looking at arrangements on a flat surface.

At a time when premise seems to govern so much of the visual arts, Carothers takes the exact opposite approach. Using the common objects of every day, the artist creates a complex visual environment in which looking becomes an activity and a pleasure. Like Chance the Gardener of Being There, it is often the simplest subjects that provide the most compelling experiences. And Carothers' paintings create deeply compelling visual experiences that only gain momentum as the eye looks on.

Cole Carothers lives and works in Covington, Kentucky. He is also the Program Director of the Baker Hunt Foundation. Parsing Views will be at the UK Art Museum from May 26-August 18. The opening reception will include a gallery talk with the artist and will be held at 2pm on June 2.