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October 19 - November 24, 2001 at Forum Gallery, West Hollywood

by Kathy Zimmerer

A decade-long survey by one of America’s preeminent photo-realist painters promises to reinforce notions about realism and abstraction in Cottingham’s masterful depiction of cultural icons. His symbolic neon signs, which are both nostalgic and potent, are rendered in a concise realism that is breathtaking yet solid. Cottingham’s realism grew out of the Pop Art movement and he still adheres to its credo of enshrining the common objects of American culture, ranging from its blatant commercial signs to the precise structure of a vintage Remington typewriter or an old Kodak camera.

The beauty Cottingham finds in the urban core is emblazoned in his magnificent paintings of neon signs such as Art (1991). The word “Art” fills up the full frame of the canvas and becomes a quirky and elusive symbol of low and high culture, rendered as it is in acidic tangerine hues and outlined with lavender and turquoise curves. It is depicted on a flat surface, but appears three-dimensional through Cottingham’s uncanny mastery of perspective, with an overlapping geometric play of shapes which enhances the work’s iconic look.

Cottingham uses visual shorthand to depict the Champagne (1992) sign. Rendered in silver and gray against a crimson background, the champagne glass has a metallic glow that reflects the ambient light of the city. Cottingham skillfully crops the rest of the sign so the viewer focuses on the glass with bubbles and the art deco stylized design of the border. Because it is a close-up, we can read it as a realist exercise, or an elegant abstraction of line and color. The viewer bounces back and forth between this duality of images, and Cottingham subtly reinforces the maximum optical input through his incredible precision.

His luminous series of vintage typewriters and cameras comprise a rich visual journey into the common object. Underwood (1998) gives the viewer an elegant machine with a pristine design, yet the eye is caught by the shimmering silver of the typewriter keys and the sheen of the black body. Here Cottingham, though still precise, has loosened up the paint to increase the depth of the visual experience. Also a classic is the Corona (1997) typewriter that is set against a brilliant orange background and viewed, as well as lit from above. By looking down on the machine, the viewer is aware of the concise geometric structure of this machine. The composition is carefully and beautifully balanced--from the monumental rollers of the carriage to the horizontal slash of the space bar. Again light shimmers over the surfaces and highlights the details in depth. Even the name of the typewriter takes on an iconic status that gains meaning, in that the typewriter is a vanishing symbol of American business and industry as it no longer exists. When Cottingham crops the typewriter image and blows it up full frame, realism and abstraction commingle and produce a stunning whole. Each letter marches across the canvas and is silhouetted against the machine structure, and the whole glows with reflected light.

“Art,” gouache on
paper, 21 x 21", 1991.

“Star,” o/c,
32 x 32", 1986.

“Ral’s,” o/c,
41 3/4 x 58 1/8”, 1983.

"Champagne," o/c,
62 x 62", 1992.

His old fashioned cameras are marvelous portraits of objects that take on a different life in these dramatic paintings. In Bimat (1998), the camera folds out so the viewer focuses on the reflected gleam of the lens, while the whole black machine is crisply silhouetted against a saturated gold ground. Cottingham adroitly crops the camera, but it still fills the frame, again urging us to note its role as a pop symbol. To Cottingham, the camera and typewriter go hand in hand as cultural icons; the camera records the images, while the typewriter records the words. He says, “Both were tools of the Everyman. They played a part in shaping our culture, and I want to pay them tribute.”

Abstraction and Realism are skillfully wedded here to produce shimmering paintings of great depth and symbolism. The vanishing objects of American culture are enshrined in a concise and eloquent homage to their elegant design and democratic utility. The exhibit is a welcome treat for admirers of his early Photo-Realist paintings, in that his evolution has produced a noteworthy series of paintings that are rich and varied in scope and meaning.