Los Angeles

Robert Cottingham

Molly Barnes Gallery

While Johns plays upon the unavoidable dualism of pictorial and real elements, there is always (present) the pure illusionist alternative, using the world as a “source,” a handmaiden buttressing the picture with the aura of craft, the respectability of precision and the weight of tradition. Hardly any of us being beyond the awe of realist exercises, Cottingham not unsurprisingly wins prizes for his thing. Cottingham’s seven oils, about five by six feet each, are encapsulations of closeup sign fragments, lifted via camera from the portals of nascently delapidating shops in the six-hundred block of downtown Broadway. Strangely, they’re all more alike than the same automobile in various models, and they seem more a cut-out series than most stellas. The content of each is the same, the store name lettering in neon, shadow-box, awning, etc., and enough background (well, not quite; everything is foreground) building detail to fill out the painting. Cottingham’s style lies in two areas (I attribute the X-based compositions to his viewing angle): flat paint application (doing it the hard way, in oils) and the choice of one-half-step pasty colors—salmon, beige, seagreen, etc.). On a chart, he’s tighter than Lowell Nesbitt, broader than Richard Estes, perhaps closer to Charles Sheeler than any contemporary.

The intended look is, I think, that Cottingham is using realist grist as a starter for complex architectural abstraction but, I’m afraid, it turns out the other way around; Cottingham, his layouts seeming so indifferent, is probably using a pardonable trace of formalism to prop up a realist workout. (Realism isn’t a vice; like anything else, it’s only a detriment when it’s done badly—Cottingham does it relatively well—or when one pretends he’s really after something else—and that’s Cottingham’s fault.) Finally, there is a nostalgia exuding from Civic Center Broadway which just doesn’t go with that bright, clever treatment; the Miracle Mile would work better.

Peter Plagens