These two solo exhibitions are presented concurrently because of overlap in their practice and biographies. Both artists were raised Mormon, Morgan in Salt Lake City, and Cottam in New York City, where both live and work now. Both artists come from a background of academic painting to paint figures that they blur or obscure in different ways. This blurring implies something spiritual, essential, lost about the figures. Their work differs in source material—Morgan only paints people she knows personally, including herself, while Cottam paints dead, canonized artists, dead celebrities and soldiers, and people he knows by their internet celebrity, often surrounding tragedy. Cottam’s work in Crayon Drawings, for example, draws on imagery found online that explores the recent Ferguson shooting and the police shooting of Darrien Hunt in Utah’s Saratoga Springs. For both Cottam and Morgan, there is a deep existential exploration that happens through portraiture.
Jenny Morgan makes large-scale paintings of people she knows—her family, her close friends, herself. In the case of her show at CUAC, Full Circle, each portrait is of a person who lives or lived in the Salt Lake City area. By painting subjects that are often nude and by blurring the image or combining the subjects with symbolic and abstract imagery, Morgan explores portraiture as a way to explore existence: symbolic existence, physical existence, spiritual existence, psychological existence, and essential existence. Through portraiture, she documents and preserves the likeness of people close to her. Through painterly intervention in the highly skilled documentation, she seeks something vulnerable and essential about each subject, often finding something both ethereal and transcendent paradoxically tied up in the documentation and preservation effort. In the end, the spiritual becomes more important than the physical in her portraits.
Born in Salt Lake City, Jenny Morgan received a BFA from Rocky Mountain College of the Arts and an MFA from School of Vision Arts in NYC. She is represented by Plus Gallery in Denver, CO and by Driscoll Babcock Galleries in New York City. Morgan’s solo exhibition this fall at Driscoll Babcock Galleries was named one of the “Top 100 Fall Shows Worldwide” by Modern Painting and she was recently featured on the cover of the September 2014 issue of Juxtapoz. Morgan was named the 2006 Top Representational Artist by the Rocky Mountain News “Top Of The Rockies” and was a finalist for the Outwin Boochever 2006 Portraiture Competition at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. She has appeared in numerous publications including New York Times, New York Magazine, Art LTD (her painting “Covet” featured on the cover), The Village Voice, Playboy, Modern Painters, Hi Fructose, The L Magazine, Poets and Artists, Maker, Working Class, Juxtaspos, Milk Maid, and Whitewall.
What you see is what you get. Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. Easy on the eyes. Eyewitness News. Our understanding of reality is built on visual information. Benjamin Cottam’s exquisite, inscrutable drawings heighten our awareness of the very process of looking—and of its precarity. Their palimpsest marks evoke lost sketches of Old Masters; Cottam’s use of pale blue paper for his white crayon might be a reference to the Venetian carta azzurra Albrecht Dürer favored for his early 16th century studies. But though Cottam’s deft execution registers immediately, the drawings’ subjects, if not their meaning, defy instant consumption. They demand close study and time.
Thwarting easy legibility has been a central element of Cottam’s artistic practice since his days at the School of The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. For his graduate exhibition in 2001, Cottam showed prints made with photoluminescent ink, which could only be seen when the gallery’s lights were turned off. The paintings that first brought him recognition were monochromatic monoliths in which the glow of expertly rendered classical portraits barely makes it through countless layers of pitch-dark oil. And the fleeting clouds of crayon marks in these, his most recent drawings, seem as likely to dissolve into abstraction as coalesce into an image.
The source for Cottam’s images is often the media, images from the news and it’s ostensible opposite, reality TV whose existence might outrage us. Or should. If only they did. It is more critique than simple irony, then, that Cottam’s works are almost unreproducible; they resist being recycled, whether in print or JPGs, and quietly insist on being seen and experienced—on being witnessed—in person. And when their beauty pays off, we’re left, hopefully, a little angrier, a little warier, a little wiser, and with our eyes slightly more open.
–Greg Allen of greg.org
Benjamin Cottam lives and works in New York City. He received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, and his MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. His work has been shown and collected internationally, and recent major museum shows include No New Thing Under the Sun, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2010; Stuff, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Detroit, Michigan, 2007; Of Mice and Men, The 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, Berlin Germany, 2006, as well as gallery shows at Bartha Contemporary in London, Galerie Von Bartha in Basel and solo exhibitions at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert, NY. Cottam’s work has been collected by The Museum of Modern Art, NY, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY.