Brief: Max Cole at Larry Becker

(P. A. Renoir, Before the Bath, oil on canvas, c. 1875, BF9)

Two very different artists (or are they?) connected themselves in my mind recently: Max Cole, and Renoir. I knew little about Cole until I saw the advertisement for the exhibit, now up through May at Larry Becker Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Max Cole is an older generation Minimalist painter, who uses traditionalist materials – oil, canvas, etc: even Renoir himself would recognize that if seeing her work from the beyond. She is, a la Agnes Martin, a rural Midwestern transplant to a New York oriented world, but who retains the Midwesterner’s sense of extremes: horizontal and vertical; smooth and rough; dark and light; ground and sky. One is almost even tempted to create a mini-school for them: AgroMinimalism. Or Fieldworks. At any rate, the affinity is noted, and helpful.
Renoir needs no introduction, but since the connection mentioned was painting-specific, that at least should be given: Before the Bath, BF9 in the Barnes Foundation collection. It is a classic Modernist bath scene, and a fine Renoir among Renoirs (and that is no small statement regarding the Barnes Foundation, which holds more Renoirs than any other institution, save for the Victoria and Albert in England). She is fixing her hair, with a sweetly demure smile, and is sitting before a bed with a mattress covered in ticking. Now, before I go further, there are two words which emerged while I was cultivating this connection: depiction, and intention. A bit dry, perhaps, but they are the double linchpins, so to speak, that hitch these two painters (and paintings) to each other. Hitching also creates friction, which as we know can begin lighting a fire in one’s mind. The ticking which Renoir depicted is brushed off fairly easily – a few broad strokes of a deep ultramarine; some thinner lines of an analogous color, with some white in there modulating towards volume, and there you have it: a supporting member of the cast. Renoir has intended this as no more than that; it is undoubtedly in service to the bathing girl; indeed, even the bed itself. And yet where would that corner of the painting be without the depiction of the ticking? Renoir’s intention enacted this depiction.
 (Max Cole, Sandspit, acrylic on linen, 2009) Larry Becker Contemporary Art
The ongoing decades of Modernism rolled on, and painting’s role made several sea changes, until we arrived to the late 1960’s, where Cole’s and Martin’s method and interests have their origins, and indeed from where Cole’s current work still draws parallels. Intention takes a dive into Renoir, needing more, and sensing that it’s in there somewhere; still holding some oysters beneath the surface. What she has found, and then runs with, is a question of fundamentals. And fundamental is an appropriate way to approach Cole’s 2009 painting, Sandspit. It is a carefully, lovingly constructed matrix of thick and thin; dark and light. The aberrations of human touch is not rejected or suppressed (as neither was Renoir’s, as a matter of course) but rather incorporated and nurtured. Does the manner or mode of making these marks (depiction) analogous to Renoir’s ticking, have some grander (or deeper) possibilities for intention? No answer will be provided here, but like Martin, Cole frequently names – embodies, more like it – her works with natural and occasionally spiritually-infused titles: Starfield; Sandspit. Thus we always seem to be pushed (gently) towards another characteristic of AgroMinimalism: the loving analysis of those extremes mentioned earlier, through classification; dissection; grid-making and categorization. But on the balance, like most conclusions of science, an irreducible core of mystery remains solid, and the allusions always are suggested, never tyrannical: there is always wiggle room.
And wiggle room might just be a good descriptive phrase for painting’s continuing move through post-modernism and beyond – where Renoir, unquestioningly, stated “ticking!” Cole has loosened up the reins, and given us some Midwestern populist latitude. Po-pomo-western, anyone?

(detail, Sandspit, acrylic on linen, 2009)
Larry Becker Contemporary Art, Philadelphia

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