Carolyn Cole ‘s mixed media abstractions play to the senses, the heart, and the emotions. She deploys color, mass, composition, and line to command attention, mesmerize, and draw us into places of her own making. Once there, we are allowed to wander at will, left to discover the incidents and clues she leaves behind to tantalize, provoke and intrigue.
At first glance, Cole’s works appear to be simply paint on canvas. A longer look reveals that they are composed through a purposeful, multi-phased process that includes collage, painting, and drawing. She builds up the canvas with recycled envelopes, creating an overall grid of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. The grid, plus the varied hues of the papers – ivory, cream, and white – and the remnants of writing or printing showing through, give Cole a painting surface that is both smooth to the touch and rich to the eye. The structure of the final work is already invested in the prepared canvas; this underlying architecture provides the essential dimension, strength and balance to Cole’s work.
Cole begins to paint knowing generally how the work will be composed, what the color palette will be, and what sort of aesthetic challenge she intends to set for herself based on past explorations. While the painting process proceeds intuitively, it draws on all of the knowledge the artist has gained from her past work and carefully documented in daily journals. As she builds up the surface, layering on paint, she makes hundreds of decisions regarding the juxtaposition of colors, their opacity or transparency, their size, shape, and function in the finished work. Areas of color reinforce or contradict the underlying grid. The interaction of color defines the work’s tone and emotion. Acts of scraping, drawing, re-painting, scrubbing, revealing, and obscuring are all employed as the world being created gains depth and life.
Clearly, Cole is an extraordinary colorist. Her reds, oranges, and yellows glow like flames; her blues, from pure ultramarine to cobalt to blue gray, are deeply atmospheric; her greens are redolent of spring grasses and humid forest. Even in the softest palette of pastel pinks, greens and grays, her work is assertive and assured. Yet, as important as it is, color is nevertheless a means to the creative end, not the sole purpose, of the work.
Cole sometimes employs the language of landscape painting to discuss her paintings, referring to a work’s horizon, or noting the source for a certain shape as the Oregon roadside or the shore. Yet, her works have an atmospheric quality, indeed, a depth and an undeniable mystery, that take them beyond the observed towards the imagined. Part of this derives from Cole’s compositional strategies: grid contradicts horizon; horizons rarely meet the edges of the canvas; and the sheer power of her color, that all conspire to foil the notion of landscape and reinforce the viewer’s experience of a separate, previously undiscovered, world. In the end, it is the uniqueness of Cole’s vision, honed over years of disciplined work and masterfully executed, that draws us to, and holds us in, this floating world of her making.
Carolyn Cole was born in Portland, Oregon and received her B.A. in painting at Portland State University in 1977. She lived for 10 years in New York City where her work was exhibited and critically acclaimed. She returned to Portland in 1991 and continues to live there. Her work is collected nationally by private collectors and public organizations.
For Carolyn Cole, painting is about intuition, consciousness, gesture, and color. “Painting is a revelatory process,” she says, “A process by trial and error which explores the artists’ intuitive relationship to his or her artwork.” Each painting in Cole’s oeuvre evolves out of subconscious and deliberate decisions made by the artist as she develops her canvas. Without using sketches or having a predetermined composition in mind, each painting represents a process by which the artist approaches the canvas and allows her sense of form and content to manifest.
The process starts as Cole prepares her stretched canvas. To eliminate the fiber weave of the canvas, Cole lays down a quilt-like grid of uniform white paper squares to create a neutral ground. Over this, Cole further introduces collage by putting down a second layer; this time the grid is made up of squares and rectangles torn from used envelopes. The envelopes vary in size and tone, from brilliant white to cream and ivory. At times, Cole will include portions of writing, such as the name and address of the envelope recipient, but the information will be cryptically cut through, the full information mysteriously missing. The envelopes, typically torn along the fold lines, with their seams and flaps, create a rich but subtle surface texture that becomes the framework of Cole’s painting.
This envelope-collage, then, becomes the ground to which Cole begins to apply color. Cole is a consummate colorist, with a strong sense of the power and emotive content of her palette. Choosing fully-saturated hues, Cole reasserts the grid by painting in loosely rectilinear forms of color, building her compositions with patches of color, one next to the other. At times the contrast between colors is vivid: deep, lapis blue against golden yellow; crimson against white and black. But each canvas also contains softer juxtapositions; a square of chalky, opaque gold next to a plot of golden wash so thinly painted that the pigment appears to be a stain. The edge of one rectilinear form next to another is an important transition for Cole; it is these junctures which reaffirm the grid of the painting, yet it is Cole’s deft handling of this joinery that allows the painting to be viewed as a unified field of color once the painting is complete.
As Cole paints, she further manipulates the canvas by adding in more collage elements, found objects that Cole has assiduously assembled over time. Cole collects an enormous array of paper objects in addition to the envelopes—ancient geometry books containing graphs and charts, Chinese volumes in kanji lettering, sheet music, ephemerides which give the coordinates of the celestial bodies at specific times during a given period. In Cole’s studio is a mountain of remnants from tattered street posters she has collected right off of Portland telephone poles. She even applies color washes to paper which will then be cut or torn to provide collage components for her paintings.
As Cole paints, she adds in small bits and pieces from her found-paper treasury. At times, Cole uses an entire rectangle of text, then obscures the communication by painting over it. Or, the artist cuts bold black-and-white lettering into a strip which then reads as a graphic stripe punctuating the painting surface. Recondite numerals might be added—not always right side up—floating within a shape of color. Throughout this process, Cole is introducing pictorial elements to further enliven the boldness of her painting.
Equal and opposite to the additive process of collage, Cole manipulates her paintings with subtle reductive methods. As if to further complicate the informal grid of her work, the artist uses a palette knife to cut through the layers of paint and paper, typically using an “X” gesture. From these slashes, Cole peels back layers, revealing colors and layers underneath; sometimes she paints into these exposed areas introducing new color. Cole also adds in drawn elements with a charcoal pencil, simple linear shapes suggestive of runes or glyphs. These may remain on the painting surface, or become ghost images as Cole paints over them. Then, as the painting nears completion, Cole sands down the painting surface, further scarring the collage edges and palette knife cuts so that the entire surface of the work is blurred and softened.
It is not surprising that Cole’s current work involves paper and the rich symbolism latent in text on paper. Cole is an artist who loves books, for whom reading is an important pastime reflective of her introspective personality. Much of Cole’s earlier work involved paper, both in terms of dense charcoal drawings and sculptural works made of cast paper. She is interested in ideas and how those ideas are disseminated—often through the written word. Cole is seduced by the idea that, paradoxically, written information is available only to those who know the language. It is possible to hold a wealth of information in one’s hands, yet if one doesn’t read the language, the text becomes something else—esoteric symbols or enigmatic marks. Cole embraces this paradox and uses it in her paintings. Cultural references are obfuscated and transformed into visual references. She provides the “information,” but leaves it up to the viewer to translate the content. She cannibalizes written “communication,” then communicates visually with her audience. Even her reliance on used envelopes as the foundation of her paintings suggests the currency of exchange between sender and reader, artist and viewer.
In mature mid-career, Cole remains a serious student of art history. She is inspired by the work of the Russian abstract expressionist, Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955), whose work from the early 1950s was composed of blocks of color. Early paintings by the California sculptor Manuel Neri (b. 1930) also influence Cole. Neri’s 1958-59 Window Series, in which square and rectilinear forms hover in the center of a color field, influenced earlier work by Cole in which she adopted large, central square-forms that almost seemed to vibrate off the painting surface.
Above all, Cole seeks union between herself and each painting. She considers each work complete only when she is visually satisfied with the work as a whole. Her hope is that each work will elicit emotion within the viewer, although Cole is reluctant to describe what that response should be. “By building up layers of paint and collage, the paintings become infused with a cultural history, at the same time allowing the viewer to create a personal history,” Cole says. Each painting, then, becomes a visual arcanum, a mystery solved only in the viewer’s imagination. In viewing her work, Cole’s communiqué becomes complete.
Irving Sandler, The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties, 1978, p. 47.
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
2015 Aberson Exhibits, Tulas, Oklahoma
2015 Butters Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2015 Portland International Airport, Portland, Oregon
2014 Gruen Galleries, Chicago, IL
2014 SAM Gallery, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington
2014 Washington County Museum, Hillsboro, Oregon
2013 Butters Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2013 Mark Gallery, Englewood, New Jersey
2012 Butters Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2012 Gallery KH, Chicago, Illinois
2012 Aberson Exhibits, Tulsa, Oklahoma
2011 Gallery KH, Chicago, Illinois
2011 Gallery IMA, Seattle, Washington
2011 The William and Joseph Gallery, Santa Fe, NM
2010 The William and Joseph Gallery, Santa Fe, NM
2010 Gallery IMA, Seattle, Washington
2010 Butters Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2009 Butters Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2009 The William and Joseph Gallery, Santa Fe, NM
2009 Gallery KH, Chicago, Illinois
2008 Butters Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2008 Mary Bell Galleries, Chicago, Illinois
2008 The William and Joseph Gallery, Santa Fe, NM
2006 Butters Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2006 Davis and Cline Galleries, Ashland, Oregon
2006 Cohen Rese Gallery, San Francisco, California
2006 “Infusion 3”, Deloney Newkirk Fine Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico
2005 Butters Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2004 Don O’Melveny Gallery, Los Angeles, California
2003 Highlands Sculpture Gallery, Carmel, California
2003 Alysia Duckler Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2002 Mary Bell Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
2002 Cohen Rese Gallery, San Francisco, California
2001 Alysia Duckler Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2000 Alysia Duckler Gallery, Portland, Oregon
1998 Alysia Duckler Gallery, Portland, Oregon
1997 Cabell Gallery, Catlin-Gable School, Portland, Oregon
1996 Spokane Performing Arts Center, Spokane, WA
1996 American Institute of Architects, Portland, OR
1991 55 Mercer Street Gallery, New York, New York
1987 Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, Oregon
1985 Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, Oregon
1981 Fountain Gallery, Portland, Oregon
1979 Arts Place Gallery, Portland, Oregon
1979 Linda Farris Gallery, Seattle, Washington
1978 Willamette University, Salem, Oregon
1977 Anne Hughes Gallery, Portland, Oregon
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
2014 “Abstraction,” Woolff Gallery, London, UK
2013 “Artist to Artist” collaborative four-artist installation, Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
2013 Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
2013 KM Fine Arts, Los Angeles, California
2012 AAF Contemporary Art Fair, New York, New York
2011 AAF Contemporary Art Fair, New York, New York
2010 AAF Contemporary Art Fair, New York, New York
2009 AAF Contemporary Art Fair, New York, New York
2009 Cheryl Hazan Gallery, New York, New York
2009 Gallery IMA, Seattle, Washington
2008 Red Dot Art Fair, Miami, Florida
2008 AAF Contemporary Art Fair, New York, New York
2008 Art in Embassies Exhibition, American Embassy, Doha, Qatar
2007 AAF Contemporary Art Fair, New York, New York
2007 Red Dot Art Fair, New York, New York
2006 Mary Bell Galleries, Chicago, Illinois
2006 AAF Contemporary Art Fair, New York, NY
2005 AAF Contemporary Art Fair, New York, NY
2004 AAF Contemporary Art Fair, New York, NY
2004 “Gesturing,” Butters Gallery, Portland, Oregon
2004 “Abstracte Elegant,” Don O’Melveny Gallery Los Angeles, California
2003 Cohen Rese Gallery, San Francisco, California
2003 San Francisco International Art Fair, San Francisco, California
2002 San Francisco International Art Fair, San Francisco, California
2001 “Text,” Seattle Art Museum Gallery, Seattle, Washington
2000 Mary Bell Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
1999 “Art Slate 1998,” Condon, Oregon
1999 Ballard Fetherston Gallery, Seattle, Washington
1992 Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Annual Exhibit, Brooklyn, New York
1991 Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Annual Exhibit, Brooklyn, New York
1990 “Ten Downtown,” Artists in General Gallery, New York, New York
1989 La Mama Galleria, New York, New York
1988 “The All Male Feminist Show,” New Waterfront Museum, New York, New York
1989 “Curator’s Choice,” White Columns, New York, New York
1988 Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park Annual Outdoor Sculpture Show, New York, NY
1987 “Art, Bridges, Space,” New York, New York
1986 “Ten on Eight,” New York, New York
1986 “On the Edge,” Temporary Edge Gallery, Brooklyn, New York
1986 Donald Wren Gallery, New York, New York
1985 Ninth Annual Small Works Show, New York University, New York, New York
1984 “Seven New York Artists-New Abstraction,” R Street Gallery, Washington D.C.
1983 “On, Of and About Paper,” Rotunda Gallery, Brooklyn, New York
1982 Brooklyn Museum Annual Exhibit, Brooklyn, New York
1980 “Paper Works,” traveling exhibit to six Western States
1979 “Works on Paper,” White Gallery, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon
1978 “Five Artists of Oregon,” Corvallis Art Center, Corvallis, Oregon
1978 Invitational Exhibit, Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington
1977 “Mixed Media and Technique,” Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
1977 “Artists of Oregon 1977,” Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
1977 “In Touch: Nature, Ritual and Sensuous Art from the Northwest, Portland Center for Visual Art, Portland, Oregon
1977 “60th Annual Exhibition,” Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington
1977 “Contemporary Issues: Works on Paper by Women,” Los Angeles, California
1976 “Artists of Oregon-Paperwork II,” Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon