“Wading into the torrent”

By Ethan Andrews | Dec 14, 2016

 

BELFASTKenny Cole's current show at Perimeter Gallery, "The Promise of Tomorrow," is a pain. Let's get that out of the way. There are hundreds of paintings, composed almost entirely of text rendered in wobbly longhand between layers of distracting patterns, colors and outlines. The largest piece includes more than 200 panels, many of them hung too high to read. Another features clunky web addresses that must be manually typed into a smart phone, assuming there's one at hand — Cole figures there probably is.

It's unwieldy as hell, but Cole doesn't really care. "The Promise of Tomorrow" is a tremendous effort, even measured against his normally prolific output as an artist. That he expects a small amount of effort in return is, if not realistic, at least reasonable.

"Flood," the largest of three pieces, yanks a 30,000-word online comment thread out of the Internet and spreads it over more a couple hundred small drawings. The source was an article about the Moken "sea gypsies" of Myanmar, a throwback society of people who act out an original-sin-type exile by living aboard boats for eight or nine months a year.

The comments from the Internet community could have been lifted from the current conversation in the United States about immigration or welfare, which is to say there is no shortage of opinions about the Moken. Cole has rendered the thing in its entirely, complete with Facebook-style thumbs up and thumbs down counters, over more than 300 panels. Within each one, Cole has outlined letters and parts of words into a tangle of gerrymandered bubbles that spell out excerpts from the biblical story of Noah and the flood.

There are easy landmarks here. The outpouring of comments made possible by the Internet is its own kind of deluge, one that might make a divine being decide to wipe the slate clean, with a real flood, say. Online comments will probably not be remembered as a high mark of civilization. Side-by-side with passages of scripture, the rant of so-and-so from wherever appears to shoot even more wildly from the hip.

On some level, Cole plays this up, but he's not exactly mocking it, either. One of the most powerful aspects of "Flood" is that pulls the Internet into the real world where it can be appraised for what it is — an expression of the human condition in 2016.

"The world is falling apart and everyone is trying to figure it out," Cole said. "There's truth everywhere. Even in the most obnoxious comment."

"Man Carrying a Cross" does a similar dance with critique and empathy. The piece has 72 internet- search-field-sized canvases arranged in a cross formation, each painted a URL that links to a Google image of a contemporary man making a pilgrimage carrying, or more often wheeling, a large cross.

Cole isn't impressed with these men, whose self-absorbed victimhood often leaves their wives and children to follow behind them with their luggage. The phenomenon of men with crosses might have been a passing footnote in American history, had Donald Trump not been elected.

Cole is unapologetically progressive. But he saw the election as a mandate to listen to voices he had considered marginal at best — including online commentators, men who have rolled a cross down a major highway and others who have historically been locked out of the cockpit. Cole said he's been trying to listen to those voices to better understand how they see the world.

"The Promise of Tomorrow" probably won't bridge the gap in worldviews. If you stood to win a lot of money by finding a public place with no Trump supporters, you might start at Perimeter Gallery in Chase's Daily restaurant. On the other hand, Cole's use of words makes his art accessible on some level to anyone who can read and has a little bit of patience.

Cole said the ideal situation for his artwork would be one in which the would-be viewer was bored to tears — a post apocalyptic realm, say, with no Wi-Fi.

"It's waiting for everything to shut down," he said. "All the noise. That's really the perfect scenario."

On one level, that's a tall order. But Cole recognizes that a piece of art stands to hang around much longer than an online comment thread. Transcribing a fugitive Internet debate potentially freezes it as an open-ended question for the ages.

Decoding one of the hundreds of panels in "Flood" takes good minute, which in the age of instant gratification sort of feels like a long time. Cole embraces the role of the curmudgeon gleefully tormenting anyone with a short attention span, but he never fully puts up a wall. For those willing to invest a minute in his work, he delivers. The good news is, puzzling out one of Cole's panels cracks the code on all the rest of them.

The thread that runs through all of it is the myth of paradise lost — "We are humans," Cole said. "We don't know why we're here, and on Day One we started screwing things up." — and the larger question of whether we even belong or are simply a freak of nature. "Early humans were struggling to understand the mysteries of life," he said. "We're still the same creatures, basically. The mystery now is: why are we so attached to our friggin’ iPhones?"

 

 

Courier Publications’ reporter Ethan Andrews can be reached at (207) 338-3333, ext. 103; or eandrews@courierpublicationsllc.com.