"Away" by Erin Cone

Even with fast and wide praise of her paintings since her first (sell-out) solo show in 2003, Santa Fe–based artist Erin Cone continues to push her work, and it shows. Cone boldly, consciously explores new approaches to form, composition, and palette with each body of work she creates. The recent solo exhibition at Hespe Gallery in San Francisco shows the painter refining and developing. 

Cone paints stylized figures based on herself. (These aren’t self-portraits, however; Cone acts as model, not subject). She says, accurately, that her work is a fusion of figurative realism and abstract minimalism. The figure is almost always solitary against a flat background and usually cropped in an arresting way—off to one side cutting out an arm, three-quarters of the head cut off. These works are as much about forms and arrangement as they are about the figure itself. And they are strong; this is made obvious when noting that the impact of the work isn’t diminished when showing the figure from behind, typically a less engaging view.

Numerous influences and art historical connections can be seen in Cone’s work. The clean, stylized approach of the neoclassicists, albeit with a fresh approach; Cone’s figure, dressed in “office casual,” is a modern woman. Contemporarily, there is a resemblance, especially as regards cropping and also stylization, to the Pasadena-based artist Kenton Nelson. Cone herself states influences from Georgia O’Keefe, Caravaggio, Édouard Manet, Gerhard Richter, and Wayne Thiebaud, among others. Cone’s traditional influences—she’d originally wanted to be a portrait painter in the Old Master style—are contrasted by the bold, commercial feel of graphic design and the slickness of photography. Her surfaces are clean and smooth, unblemished. (Cone worked as a graphic designer at a publishing company before taking the leap to devote herself to painting full time.) Inspiration also comes from collage, fashion, and dance.

For this body of work, Cone has limited her palette. She’s playing with levels of contrast. Some work features less, such as Away, a quiet work with almost a sepia tone appearance. Work such as Allure, showing a partial upper portion of a figure with a bright red shirt again a blue-grey ground, shows more. But gone are, say, the hard orange backgrounds of past work. The new-found subtlety is welcome. Cone also softens her images and adds movement by showing afterimages, hints of where the body just was; it gives us more to see. And the rendering of the figure itself, verging slightly more toward realism, gives these paintings greater life and depth; they energize the work more than in the past, and they’re simply better painted. If there are criticisms to be made, it’s that Cone’s work can tend toward being too pretty and too rigid or graphic—flat, lacking depth. Cone’s to be credited, however, for seriously honing her craft and working through formal concerns. It’s an exciting process to watch and no small pursuit.

 Here we see a dedicated, talented painter steadily developing into an artist.

This review first appeared on VisualArtSource.com.

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