Writing is a way of talking without being interrupted. That thought belongs to 19th century French writer Jules Renard - who didn’t make visual art - so it’s strange that while viewing Kenny Cole’s “Gold, God, Guns, and Girls,” it comes readily to mind. Cole is not a writer, and yet he uses words - strong ones - like a carpenter uses nails. Scriptures, prophecies, speeches, and sermons anchor these vibrant, colorful drawings. While the artist seems to take a perverse pleasure in borrowing them (from St. Francis of Assisi, the prophet Jeremiah, and the UN Security Council, among others), he also makes them a chore to read. The tiny, circuitous text collides into golden bullets, dancing showgirls, and piles of money - a slew of potential interruptions - yet Cole keeps on writing it. Why? 

Even ten years ago, these works could not have happened. They are firmly modern drawings, as much concerned with American drone missiles, secret wars, and their scriptural justifications as the haze of distractions that constantly befogs our culture and renders those concepts unfathomable to us. Cole juxtaposes the cold, hard core of uncomfortable fact with a periphery of bright and shiny visual lures in a way that’s by now familiar to us all. 

He’s been doing this for years, but it’s noteworthy that as he continues his artistic study of America’s unspeakable practices, his imagery is becoming more surreal. Never before has his work featured such lavish saturation, hallucinatory patterns, and diverse vocabulary. Which is to say, for an exhibition of work so unapologetically political, so dedicated to finding new ways of revealing dark secrets; there sure are a lot of pretty colors. It’s a fascinating device, really. These pieces are among the most visually arresting he’s ever made, but can we trust him? Don’t the efforts to make a picture more attractive only further obscure its truth? 

Of course, these are trick questions. “Gold, God, Guns, and Girls” differs from Cole’s earlier work because its terrain is the mind. We already know the truth. Unlike The Hellfire Story, the fall 2010 exhibition in Portland’s SPACE Gallery which detailed the fifty-year history of the United States drone missile program, “Gold...” with its dreamlike backdrops and American symbology, suggests that warfare isn’t merely a horror story in a newspaper or RSS feed. It’s a constant narrative, and it’s running inside each of us. 

There’s another way “Gold, God, Guns, and Girls” is unusual. Sure, the drawings are political, indeed almost polemical. They use patterns of religious iconography to warn of the dangers of using religious iconography. They contain such intricate design and methodical labor that it’s tempting to try to decode them for some hidden answer or instruction. Good luck with that. Despite all this, they still manage to have fun. Cole may have opinions, and he can certainly ramble a little (at least artistically), but he’s not a dogmatist. And whether you find his drawings provocative or distracting, hopefully they can bring out opinions of your own. 

Nicholas Schroeder
April 2011