Penobscot Bay Pilot

Artist Kenny Cole examines American politics, men and the uniform through his art

By Kay Stephens

Friday, November 11, 2016

BELFAST—While some people may be exhausted with political topics this week, it is a continuing conversation through Kenny Cole’s art. A Maine visual artist, Cole’s work has been described as a visionary mix with an activist inspired political thrust.

With a show called "Like There's No Tomorrow" solo currently hanging at Win Wilder Hall in Rockland and another, “The Promise of Tomorrow,” on view at Chase’s Daily Perimeter Gallery through December 31, Cole has tried to make sense of a turbulent political climate and what it means to be an American man.

Cole grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, and attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1976 studying “a reductionist’s approach to painting, with a consciousness toward the painting object’s physical relationship to the maker/viewer and the physicality of mark-making.”

After moving to Maine in 1994 with his wife and two children, he soon began getting involved with organizing several political art actions.

In 2002, he met the political artist Luis Camnitzer, who had a strong influence on him. Cole states: “I decided to commit myself more fully to creating politically engaging art. I have since then begun to re-visit making more elaborate two-sided interactive painting structures and have become even more determined to expansively explore the allure of the military economy.”

Technology plays heavily into his artwork. Having grown up on the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, he said, “I often examine our relationship with technology and how through our infatuation with it, we sell our souls a little bit.”

Santa Claus and leprechauns appear in several of his paintings in gouache.

“I like to take popular symbolic characters and imagine how they might relate to warfare,” he said. "As an artist, I'm interested in schematic colors, pageantry and national colors, how they appear on flags, and redefining what they mean."

In “Four Uniforms” he copied an illustration of winter and summer Air Force uniforms from a 1960 encyclopedia, rendering the Santas cheering on the winter side and the Leprauchans cheering on the summer side. All of the flying insignias in the painting also came from that Encyclopedia page.

In the painting “Three coffins flag,” he said: “While the shape of the flag is familiar, the colors are not and your brain is trying to make connections with national colors. You want to understand what that means.”

“Man Carrying A Cross” at first glance doesn’t make sense until you realize that each truncated Google link refers to an online image of modern day men carrying crosses down a road.

“I first saw this in Belfast, twice actually over the last two years, men carrying a giant cross down the road,” he said. “And if you Google this image, you’ll find thousands of people do this. I was going to do hyper realistic paintings of these photos, but I decided to create the shorthand for these photos, so that you would have to disengage with the art and consult your handheld device.”

Asked why he chose to engage with this subject, he said: “It’s just this weird phenomenon of white men carrying a cross for miles and miles all geared up with compartments in the cross where they carry all of their clothes as sort of this self-flagellating quest. What they are telling the world by doing this is that they are suffering, and I think that’s what happened in this past election. Many people didn’t like Trump or what he had to say but then there was the other side, the working class white male who Trump identified with and listened to and that’s why Trump successfully won. We’ve now heard them loud and clear.”