by Nancy Kay Turner
(Diane Nelson Gallery, Orange County) R. Kenton Nelson is a prolific master craftsman whose small oil on panel paintings have a nostalgic feel reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton and other artists who participated in the regionalist movement of the thirties. These slices of American life, and especially architecture, harken back to an America we scarcely recognize--bereft of cars, people and graffiti. When people do appear, as in the larger painting On Passing Interests, they are dressed as if they are from another time--the young man jaunty in his three-piece suit and tie as he lounges in front of a restaurant, catching the eye of a bobby-soxed young woman. This bucolic scene suggests a leisurely tone gone from our harried contemporary existence, and that is part of their appeal. Nelson is a fabulous colorist, and he is so very expert at capturing the play of light and shadow that the light becomes a character in this narrative. Everything is bathed in this crisp, bright light.The city is clean--okay, too clean. These pictures begin to have a sense of unreality to them. We seem to be watching The Truman Show, where the sun is always shining, the streets are spotless, and the houses are all freshly painted. Though lush and gorgeously painted, we begin to wonder if the Stepford Wives live here.
Too quaint to be political commentary, these small paintings, though charming, can seem machine-made in their precision. Unlike the precisionist painters Georgia O'Keefe and Charles Sheeler, whose work was varied even if their technique was not, Nelson's work can seem mannered and overly stylized. The way Nelson depicts the white voluminous clouds are almost identical in Visiting The Goodmans, The Coffee and Radio Are On, and Minor Theatrics. Visiting the Goodmans depicts the exterior of a large, moorish structure; The Coffee and Radio Are On features a California bungalow, the type that is prevalent in Pasadena; and Minor Theatrics focuses on the roof of a two-story Spanish house with a beautiful view of the hills. The titles suggest more drama than the pieces deliver.
Probably Sal's shows a well-kept modest bungalow with a carefully tended lawn and nice landscaping. Mr. Lynch focuses on the porch of a small, tidy cottage and of course we presume that Mr. Lynch lives there. Nelson gives us the feeling of a neighborhood here, where each house belongs to someone who has a piece of the American dream. Yet each of these architecturally detailed houses is in a sense oddly nondescript-- there are no bicycles on the lawn, no lawn mowers, no gardens, no sign of intelligent life. The only people in these works are named in the titles, not evident visually. Though each painting is a joy to look at, a small jewel, they are too repetitive after awhile, and when taken as a group become diminished. R. Kenton Nelson is a gifted painter who is in danger of exhausting an already thin idea.
Nick Drove By," oil on panel, 12 x 30", 1998.
The Coffee and Radio Are On,
On Passing Interests,
Probably Sal's, oil on