Cole Carothers and Courttney Cooper are each instinctive artists. That is to say, each makes art because it’s his natural response to what he sees, but how they see is as individual as they are themselves.
Carothers’ instincts have been classically nurtured through both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts; he has also taught painting, art history and design at high school and college levels.
Cooper’s artistic notions have been equally encouraged, but less formally shaped. He has long been one of the most visible studio residents at Visionaries & Voices, the Northside gallery providing studio space and exhibitions for artists with disabilities. Exhibitions are not new to him; aside from V&V shows, his work has also been seen at The Carnegie in Covington and at the Contemporary Arts Center.
Carothers became aware of Cooper’s work as a volunteer at Visionaries & Voices. The two developed a relationship as artists with a shared subject matter. As nearly as I can tell, their individual work shows no cross-hatching of influence, but knowing each other has probably proved interesting for each of them. Matt Distel, the Museum’s newly appointed adjunct curator for contemporary art and curator for this show, observed that relationship in his previous post as executive director for V&V.
The exhibition contains three of Cooper’s maps, described rightly in the gallery’s wall label as “large, elaborate and exuberant,” and five of Carothers’ paintings, noted as coming from “a significant body of work in a landscape tradition” and incorporating sly shots of social commentary. These works are not easy occupants of the same room, but paying attention to detail gives them more in common.
Cooper’s maps — layered and occasionally bulging where the pages of copier paper are especially thick — are aerial views of the city as imagined by the artist, who knows the streets from his seat on a bus or from walking them himself.
Downtown is the subject’s heart: The river forms a curving boundary below, the multiple lanes of I-75 are formidable at the left, I-71 appears as a less disrupting artery at the right and Vine Street thrusts north like an escape route, if needed. People are absent; the city itself, its buildings and streets, are the subject.
The three maps are dated 2009, 2010 and 2011. Cooper uses a ballpoint pen and works over his compositions obsessively, pasting on a new layer when a building is torn down or a new one rises. Written comments are part of his composition; he has a propensity to spell Cincinnati “Zinzinnati” and enjoys the German-ness of Over-the-Rhine. He likes festival atmospheres. The earliest of these maps records a balloon race along the river; the balloons are still there in subsequent works. In the 2011 rendition, “Oktoberfest” is noted.
These maps, never small, grow progressively larger. The wall labels don’t give dimensions, but identification for a publicity photo of the earliest gives its size as 51-by-85 inches. Looking at them chronologically shows the artist’s skills developing, a growing ease in detail and increasing definition of subject.
Carothers also shows us a city devoid of its inhabitants. The environments we contrive for ourselves are more interesting to each of these artists than the individuals who might live and work there. Two of Carothers’ works are from 2007, two from 2008 and one from 2012. Already, some of these views are historic rather than current, as the landscape of a living city changes all the time.
Again, the view is aerial. If you know the city, you might find yourself thinking about where the artist himself stood to see the scene he painted. “Queensgate” (2007), for instance, is perhaps as seen from Mount Storm in Clifton, artistic license bringing buildings closer and eliminating a middle ground. The grand Art Deco arch and rotunda of what is now the Museum Center are nearly bereft of their original reason for being — to accommodate a busy passenger train schedule — and from this distance, the building is seen as a lonely 20th century architectural note among common, workaday 19th century structures. Kentucky, from this vantage point, seems largely uninhabited.
On the other hand, “Both Sides of the River (Mid-morning)” (2008), shows Covington beyond a fine sweep of bridge coming into the composition from the left as a lively city with its controversial and extremely 21st century blue and silver apartment building, The Ascent, as a centerpiece.
Carothers centers on downtown Cincinnati in his largest painting here, “Crown Jewels.” Framed by curves of highway, with Procter & Gamble’s twin towers very much in evidence as well as Great American Ball Park, the view might be from Mount Adams. Since 2007, when this work was painted, Western & Southern has raised its own tower, complete with diadem, which makes the tongue-in-cheek title almost prophetic.
“Radio, Radio” (2012), a vertical painting with faint suggestions of radio towers in its far distance, is lined at left and right by the slim edge of a contemporary building, each like a guard at a doorway. Severe horizontal lines mark the one at left, equally severe vertical lines at the right. The old city lies between.
Carothers, who enjoys giving you something to think about, has an enviably sure hand with color. This is apparent in “Juggernaut” (2008), where a blatantly new, orange-ish curve of a building is central to the composition. Most telling, though, are the buildings’ secret tops — a swimming pool, possibly a small conservatory, places to sit and sun.
It’s a teaser of an exhibition, so few works, so limited in scope, leaving the viewer — or this one, anyway — wanting to see something more from each of the artists. But perhaps that’s an ancillary aim of Cincinnati Everyday?
CINCINNATI EVERYDAY is on view through Sept. 22 at the Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Mount Adams. More info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.