Ken Nevadomi: The Panther’s Teeth

Ken Nevadomi, Runaway Horse

The acclaimed painter and retired professor of painting at Cleveland State University, Ken Nevadomi, is the subject of two major exhibits this year: A Wild Ride—a retrospective examining his lifetime art production—was on view at Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, June 17 through August 7. An even more comprehensive look at Nevadomi’s work will be on view this fall at WOLFS Gallery, displayed throughout its labyrinthine new space on Mercantile Road in Beachwood. Something like 100 canvases and works on paper will be on view, giving a fairly complete idea of this remarkable Cleveland artist’s accomplishments as a visionary expressionist painter. Nevadomi’s acrylic compositions have been associated with several waves of painting that swept through art schools, galleries and museums during the late twentieth century—imagism, neo-expressionism—but his originality makes him difficult to classify. Recently he’s received too little attention in contemporary galleries and museums, but hopefully these two outstanding solo exhibits of his work will help to correct that amnesia.

Planting both feet in Cleveland is already an act of defiance that guarantees obscurity and marginalization—a kind of originality to which few artists aspire. But Nevadomi has held his ground, doing his work and following his path through the decades—the most that can be done by anyone, in any context. Retiring from his position at CSU a few years ago when he was in his late seventies, he continued to paint at his studio and keep ongoing notes in his sketch book. In 2018 he was diagnosed with a mild case of Alzheimer’s and decided to move to an assisted living facility. Michael Wolf, Mindy Tousley (of AAWR), Christopher Richards (who is writing a catalog essay for the WOLF showing), as well as Dan Bush and Hilary Gent of West 78th Street Arts Complex have all helped to organize the two shows mentioned here, and ride herd on the paintings packed into Nevadomi’s West Side working space. His CSU colleague George Mauersberger has photographed more than 500 of the paintings and drawings there.

Nevadomi’s powerful, restlessly mobile figurative paintings journey from the dream-stuff of eros-tinged reverie, back to the streets and barstools of what passes for consciousness reality. His most memorable images include startling evocations of nightmare, which find ways to recreate the surprise and relief of sudden waking. One example is The Folding Up of Things, which was awarded the painting prize at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s 1986 May Show. Brusquely-fluent strokes of acrylic color emerge like flashes of lightning from the night of a black-painted underlying canvas surface. Near the top of the picture, a teeth-gnashing panther, which appears to move across the top branches of three bare trees, has retracted his paw after reaching down to claw the arm of a stocky man slouching below. A bloody streak curves down the length of his white sleeve. Refugee from a more orderly world, he wears belted brown pants and block-like shoes; he hangs his head in numb despair. On the left, a nude female figure—her flesh tone a zombie’s patchy gray—approaches menacingly, arms upraised, spitting short bluish, bride-of-Godzilla exhalations. The suspenseful scene is framed on three sides by a jagged, sideways view of pointy hills or treetops, plus the tumbling black towers of a city, stabbing into the picture plane like daggers, like the panther’s teeth. Blue swoops are, likely enough, tidal waves, encroaching on all sides. The Folding Up of Things is an apocalyptic vision of the earth as a collapsing balloon, a fast-forward depiction of end-times, delivered with Old Testament vigor (if strangely inflected with an up-to-date, comic con demotic flair). All painted in Cleveland, Ohio back in 1985.

Thoughtless Piano, Ken Nevadomi

That unforgettable image is one of thirty or so paintings and drawings that were presented in A Wild Ride, at AAWR. Featuring work from 1976 to 2006, the show gives a good idea of the remarkable breadth of the painter’s depictions made over that thirty-year span, from poetic large-scale charcoal drawings to monumental acrylic expositions of pseudo-biblical tableaux and psychological/sexual trauma. Sometimes they’re almost just plain fun—yet an echo of another dimension, a question mark is stirred into the mix. In fact, they are profound.

In a video interview conducted with the legendary curator and museum director Dennis Barrie in 1984, Nevadomi explained how his manner and subject matter often derived from the random resonances of life’s objects and events, re-embedded in the loose ongoing half-life of his artistic practice: “You sit around talking about chainsaws, and occasionally a chainsaw will be in a painting.” As a professor of painting at Cleveland State University for three decades, he often met and exchanged thoughts with other members of the faculty, especially his friend and next-door neighbor visual artist George Mauersberger. Barrie asks, “Do you actually sit down and talk about art?”

Thoughtless Piano, Ken Nevadomi

“No, we sit down and joke about art. You know, talking about art is like, I don’t know what it’s like. It’s like talking about the wind or something.”

With or without chainsaws, Nevadomi’s paintings are intended to be essentially ambiguous, devoted to achieving a type of quirky, unpretentious universality. At one point in the interview, he calls what he does “subjective art.”

He says, “I think that whatever an artist does, they’re recording their time, whether they want to think about it that way or not. That’s the way it’s going to come out. My little niche seems to be, to do that thing. The chaos, the opposite of what society presents itself as, enters into it somehow.”

On one side of AAWR’s big gallery, A Wild Ride included an epic depiction of an extra-biblical event: Adam and Eve in a Boat, the acrylic-on-canvas depiction, is eight feet square and shows a heroic, nude Adam and Eve standing in a boat with a single sail. Little people (Cain and Abel?) peer over the gunwale near the prow, watching an Edenic dolphin (or shark?) cavort in the blue of waves of the Tigris. Nevadomi explains nothing, but the painting is apparently an “expulsion,” referring to the Fall, or to events just a bit later. We’re shown a time that the biblical account passes over, a moment in the long years after the aboriginal couple were driven from the Garden, out toward the east. This is visual apocrypha, riffing on the bare melody of the Genesis account. Like so many of Nevadomi’s deceptively slap-dash works from the mid to late 1980s, this is a thought-provoking piece boldly confronting eternal themes, and awkward questions they inspire, such as “Where did they go and what did they do after the Angel placed that fiery sword at the gates of Eden?” Adam and Eve in a Boat connects not so much with religious concerns, but with the nature of the coherence of the Western tradition of painting. Great human themes as interpreted in various forms in the titanic works of Masaccio, Giotto, Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt and many others, incidentally filtered through Christian iconography, but deriving from far more ancient sources are the “religion” of the kind of subjective painting that Nevadomi creates. Nevadomi, for his, part, tends to infuse his renditions of great mysteries with a tongue-in-cheek naiveté that makes the high drama more digestible, and more relevant to our time.

Ken Nevadomi, Adam and Eve in a Boad, 8 X 8 feet

On the opposite wall were two smaller, though still big, paintings dealing with more recognizably modern, psychiatric subjects. Nevadomi titled these works dating from 1993, Mysteries of Repulsion. One shows a nude female child clenching an upraised fist, caught between gigantic figures—a nun holding a bouquet of roses, and an adult woman half clothed, half naked, seen from the back, obviously in pain as if suspended, perhaps martyred. Time-travelling to another stage in life’s journey, at the left of the picture Nevadomi outlines (like drawing in white chalk on a blackboard) a glimpse of a monochromatic, passionless world, where a woman lies on a couch watching a small TV. The other Mysteries work shows a naked man on a ladder. His body is oddly deformed, maybe seen through different lenses or at varying distances—thin legs and feet perched on the ladder’s second rung, below almost jokey buttocks (think Ren and Stimpy) and a long, wide back extending all the way to the top of the canvas. His face pops down from there, somehow, staring at us. Underneath the ladder’s arch a boy, also naked, raises his fists and shouts angrily. On the left, a skeletal woman clad in a transparent negligee sticks fingers down her throat, enacting the ritual of bulimia. A sink juts from the edge of the canvas, conveniently. Like Freud, Nevadomi finds broken shards of truth among the scattered debris of behavior.

The painter behind these works isn’t a man who would likely feel any need to be featured on the cover of Art in America. As far as notoriety goes, like any artist—and he is beyond question a first-rate painter of national significance, widely appreciated in his lifetime—who has done his level best to keep up with the demands of an idiosyncratic muse through a lifetime of effort, Ken Nevadomi is a true poster child of the human psyche, a role model for artists who don’t need or want any such thing.

Ken Nevadomi: A Wild Ride was on view at Artists Archives of the Western Reserve June 17 through August 7.

Ken Nevadomi: Exhibition and Sale opens this fall at WOLFS Gallery, Beachwood.