Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review of Paul M. Cote at the Caelum Gallery

Paul M. Cote is a postmodern artist inspired by the great modernists - particularly Jackson Pollock. It could be a coincidence that Cote Signs his paintings with the nom de brush "Cody" and Pollock grew up in Cody, Wyoming. But like his great predecessor, Cote comes across as an artistic cowboy, lassoing his forms with skeins of flung pigment like Buffalo Bill Cody on mammoth canvases that suggest the expansive scale of the Old West.

At the same time - since Cote often embeds rocks, sea shells, crystals, screws, nails, masks, broken glass, old gold picture frames, and even whimsical 3-D figures of butterflies festooned with white feathers into his thick impasto surfaces - there's also a hint of the funky 1980's East Village found-object funk assemblage ala Julian Schnable and Jean Michel Basquiat in his explosive compositions. Add the Post Pop-Comic sensibility of an artist who cites "science fiction and the universe" as two of his major enthusiasms; the natural physicality of a kid who grew up playing hockey, baseball, and football; the aggressive spirit of an adult who has earned his living playing and teaching tennis and has trained as competitive bodybuilding - and you may get some idea of what we are dealing with here.

Cote calls painting "The Gift," since it came to him on an impulse, mercifully ending a period of his life that he now refers to as "the uncentered years." Thus he seems to regard at as something akin to spiritual salvation and to embrace it with the conviction of the newly converted. So don't look for traditional technical finesse in his big, bold solo show at the Caleum Gallery, but for the untrammeled passion of a natural born outsider who appears to wrestle each new composition into submission by sheer force of will. (One piece of him at work in his studio shows him spreading paint on a canvas laid out on the floor with what appears to be a mop!) The results are thickly layered monoliths that often take on the heft of bas reliefs, given the combination of thick pigment and embedded objects that lend Cote's work unique heft and depth.

Characteristically tactile is the canvas called "Lonely Road," where a winding configuration of piled-up pebbles, splashed with strident yellow drips, swerves through and shatters a large red picture frame. One could read obvious meanings into this work. As in "The Wizard of Oz," following the yellow brick road of art can lead to a magical place. But to get there one must be willing to spend many hours working in isolation in the studio. And it will only be worthwhile if, at the end of the day, the frame of conventional constraints is shattered and new ground is gained...

But to second-guess such an open-ended abstraction so specifically, rather than engaging with it primarily for its autonomous aesthetic attributes, can be a risky venture. Unless, of course, it is a painting such as the powerfully indignant "Universal Screwing by BP," in which Cote vents his rage at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by engulfing small figures of birds, symbolic scattering of screws, and other objects swirling in layers of mucky black pigment.

By contrast, another large canvas, hung quadrilaterally, and simply titled "serenity," draws the viewer into a luminous space where crystalline blue and white ripples create the sense of a lyrical aquatic realm in a more perfect world than our own.

-Ed McCormack