BRIAN COBBLE: THE POETRY OF FACTS
Essay by Roger Winter, New York, 2008
There is a dignity and poignancy in the bare fact that a thing exists.
C. S. Lewis
John Ruskin once wrote that delicacy of drawing and subtlety of sight were common traits in all great painting, an unmistakable clue that Ruskin belonged to some time other than the second half of the 20th century. Most painters of the 1950s through 2000 followed the trends of the art world, pursuing either an expressionistic approach to materials or a pristine flatness via pop and minimal art thatshowed no evidence of the artist’s hand.
Fortunately for us, but perhaps not always for him, Brian Cobble turned his back on this trend away from subtlety and fineness. His hermetic painstaking style has, more often than not, left him watching his friends gain wider recognition through approaches to painting that allow more rapid production. But with dogged commitment, and with the support of a few devoted patrons, Cobble has managed to follow his heart. He has resigned himself to an almost monastic existence of long workdays and a frugal lifestyle that allows him to remain true to his gift and to his aesthetic ideals.
Knowingly, Cobble’s work picks up some long abandoned threads of American art, especially the art of reportage. This is not to infer that his work is out of date – “out of date” is a concept of fashion – but rather to point out its timelessness. The insistence on facts seen in the works of Cobble’s predecessors such as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer has precedence in 17th century Dutch painting, still earlier Flemish miniatures, and in occidental philosophy all the way back to the Hellenistic idea that art was neither more nor less than the careful imitation of nature’s appearance. And although earlier American painters turned away from their aristocratic parent cultures of the Old World and toward the phenomena of a new society, the art that did emerge over time was a pared down factinfatuated echo of the remembered grandiose styles of Europe.
Cobble is a self-taught historian of 19th and early 20th century American painting. During his years in New York, he spent time each week in the back of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum, where scores of earlier American paintings are clumsily displayed in huge glass cases. Here he was able to study at leisure a wide cross section of painters, some famous and some not so famous. While he deeply admired the works of the best known of pre-Armory Show artists, especially George Inness (whom Cobble wanted to be when he grew up!), he was perhaps more personally enamored of some lesser-known painters such as Samuel Colman (Figure 1) and Daniel Garber (Figure 2). Colman and Garber’s views of America – its recently placed architecture, its special light, its geographical terrain, its distinct flora – seem to match and reinforce Cobble’s own vision. His interest in artists whom some Americanists would call minor is consistent with his general investigative curiosity which leaves no stone unturned.
Though Albuquerque is Cobble’s home, one would make a mistake to think of him as a New Mexican painter in the current typical use of that label. The state’s picturesque landscapes and Pueblo cultures have been painted and repainted ad nauseam, sometimes with great originality as in the works of Georgia O’Keeffe as well as any number of fine artists who worked in New Mexico during the first half of the 20th century. But despite its growing legitimate art scene – the highly regarded Site Santa Fe being but one example – New Mexico has been flooded in recent decades with commercial galleries that cater to the tourist market. Cobble is aware of this phenomenon, and he knows he must eschew the stereotypical. Like Walt Whitman thinking of the sea while writing about other matters, Cobble’s work is influenced by the awe-inspiring light of the desert and by vernacular architecture in small New Mexican towns even as he translates this influence into subjects in places as far ranging as New York or Nebraska. His view of the Long Island Railroad (page 17) seems haunted by the same espantos he originally discovered at home. His vision is, as in Edward Hopper’s definition of art, “nature seen through a personality.” Cobble’s is a personality formed by the forces of a specific place.
When he does paint a pure landscape, Cobble is painting a subject that he knows about and cares deeply about. His vision of the mountains, deserts and rivers of the southwest is based on decades of firsthand observation. As a nine year old, he moved with his family from Ohio to Las Cruces, New Mexico. Throughout his life, he has kept close contact with the New Mexican landscape through frequent camping, backpacking, cross-country skiing and kayaking, although he understands that this landscape is not just a playground. As well as seeing it as a place rife with present dangers and a very long bloody history of human conflict, he also shows respect for the maintenance of his beloved corner of the planet through involvement in environmental work. Cobble and his wife Julie Kutz, a biologist, worked for years to get the Mexican wolf reintroduced to the area. They have also participated in river restoration projects, as well as clearing brush for trails and for wildlife areas.
If Cobble has a signature subject, and whether or not he does is, to his credit, a debatable issue, it would have to be called the built environment. Like American artist John Gast’s 19th century painting of an angelic figure stringing telegraph wire across the continent while below, pioneers on the ground are moving west pushing the aboriginal population and the wild animals out of their way (Figure 3), Cobble sees the landscape superimposed with fences, artificial waterways, refineries, quickly installed human habitation projects, trailer parks, asphalt slabs, and on and on and on. He paints the outward signs of a mobile seminomadic human culture, a culture in constant change. He often quotes his Skowhegan teacher, Willard Midgette, as saying that he thought it strange that so many artists painted landscapes as if they had just walked into a world without cars or telephone poles. To the earlier American artists who saw landscape as beautiful (pastoral) or sublime (wild), a third category needs to be added to cover the commonplace.
The most noticeable and comment provoking aspect of Cobble’s painting is his medium: pastel. Pastel, often written off as a Sunday painter’s bailiwick or a medium for quick studies, became Cobble’s almost by accident. Oil paint was the medium through which he learned about art. Because of oil’s flexibility, atmospheric nature, and, in his own word, “cachet” – after all, oil had been the major medium of every great painter from Rembrandt to de Kooning – he assumed it would be his medium. But an eye condition called iritis (inflammation of the iris) worsened by the solvents used in oils led him to experiment with pastel. It seems more than possible that even without an eye condition Cobble might have gravitated to this medium. Pastel’s simplicity and directness (no brushes or palette to clean, no tubes or lids to deal with) and its potential for drawing fine detail in color makes it a natural for his needs. As time has passed, pastel has all but supplanted water and oil based media for him, although he still uses watercolor and gouache, along with charcoal, for underdrawing and underpainting.
The folk-painter, Grandma Moses, once said that she started her paintings “with a broom and ended with a straw,” a good metaphor for Cobble’s approach. The early stages of his painting are broadly rendered, the middle stages less so, and the final layers are composed of thousands of tiny colored strokes made with finely sharpened pastel sticks. He shies away from no complexity, giving each square centimeter the loving attention that it must have. Almost obsessively, he works until each painting’s surface is left with no “hot spots;” no unevenness of craft.
Certainly, Cobble’s technical artistry is a magical, compelling quality in his work, but not the only such quality. He is able to compose a horizontal rectangle quite as well as any living painter of any style. At first glance, we may think that we are looking at a painting based on one photographic image, but on examination we begin to suspect that what is there is a synthesis of details from several sources placed together to orchestrate a system of values, linear forces, colors and shapes that have likely never existed before in quite this arrangement. For instance, in “Shakeytown,” (page 19) a commonplace two-lane highway scene, we begin to see a constellation of small shapes and colors juggled into an overall treatment of light that has to be too ordered to be the random aggregate we know to expect from chance clutter. But nothing here is overt; nothing for surrealistic effect. Cobble incorporates predictable imagery for design’s sake, and he does so expertly.
As close to the surreal as he is likely to get can be seen in the detail of artificial tulips in “310 W. 7th,” (Figure 4, Right, 310 West 7th, 2006, pastel, 12 7/8 x 31 3/4 inches, Collection of Cheryl Rosner and Todd Libke) a dead-season scene in a stable American neighborhood showing fragments of several houses and yards. In the lower center of his composition, Cobble has placed an arrangement of flattened brightly colored metal tulips – a visual pun that heightens the viewer’s experience of a structurally complex portrait of a prosaic cultural stratum. His depiction is as poignant and telling as realist literature.
In “Tchoupitoulas,” (page 24) Cobble paints a vintage commercial street at the point of being reclaimed by nature (as can be said of many of his subjects) sharing the space with an elevated freeway. The freeway, oblivious of its surroundings, ushers in a new world that demands expediency above all other considerations.
“Machine Gun Fun” (Figure 5, Left, Machine Gun Fun, 2006, pastel, 26 x 39 1/2 inches, Collection of Alice and Charlie Adams) is a tour de force depiction of a carnival stand shown near closing time. The noisy rhythm of the repetition of pinwheels, stuffed toy prizes, bar stools and other motifs is foiled by a quietly working cleaning man off centered in the foreground and two women in passive poses behind the counter. Cobble echoes the spinning nature of the pinwheels with a distant view of a Ferris wheel. The more we look at the painting, the more we see repeated forms, whether in the far away city lights, the vertical posts in the middle ground or the windows and stripes of a nearby trailer. And yet the counteracting, deceivingly random placement of figures and objects throughout the picture plane makes “Machine Gun Fun” a perfect example of Croce’s classic observation that art possesses “variety in unity.” The same is true of “View from the Viaduct” (page 26) with its rhythmic repetitions in an unplanned industrial neighborhood seen from above.
While “Machine Gun Fun” takes a giddy garish subject and turns it into a serene study, “Lotaburger” (page 9) reverses course by transforming a potentially pedestrian fast food establishment into an exciting cacophony of reflections, figure studies, signage, distant mountains, etc., without losing the quality of classic calm that always prevails in Cobble’s work.
Any attempt at painting by any artist is an act of faith. In Cobble’s case, the element of faith is magnified since he inevitably spends months of his life resolving one middle-sized work. The world around him changes while a single painting evolves hopefully toward a successful completion. He may feel, as does Joyce Carol Oates’ metaphorical writer, that the whole world is having fun outside his window while he pushes a peanut with his nose across a dirty floor. He has come to accept the fact that low production can lead to under appreciation in the short run, but he also knows that his gifts of perception and discrimination are rare, and that they can only be manifested through disciplined work. This knowledge is enough to bring him into his studio at 7 o’clock each morning for a ten to twelve hour workday. We are the beneficiaries of his faith, his patience, his insistence and persistence. In a clamoring market-driven art world, Brian Cobble’s contribution is, indeed, blessed assurance to each of us that delicacy of drawing and subtlety of sight still exist.
New York, 2008