The Myths of Ken Nevadomi
Fresh off the heels of a critically acclaimed New York premiere of Ken Nevadomi’s work at the Independent Art Fair and the Tube Strange exhibition in Tribeca with New Canons, WOLFS Gallery mounts an ambitious display of the artist’s work in their Beachwood gallery. WOLFS’s exhibition, Ken Nevadomi: Dancing on the Moon, presents works from the late 1980s and early 1990s. While these paintings may appear tame compared to his earlier work from the 1970s, there is still a sense of anxiety, sexual tension, and reflection on contemporary society. The artist also prophesizes a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by unrestrained capitalism, viruses, and climate change. This is all seen through a gritty paint technique, with strong emphasis on mythology and references to art history. The show, like Nevadomi’s work, requires more than just a quick pass. Complex ideas and juxtaposed styles often confront each other within individual paintings. Presented in a single exhibition, WOLFS brings us an artist who is not timid about exploring a wealth of diversity in his work.
The topics of Nevadomi’s paintings have often been difficult, depicting overt sexuality and violence. WOLFS attempts to shift this narrative with their selection of paintings, but underneath a soft color palette and a digestible façade of mythology lies a consistent exploration of darker subject matter. New York Times art critic, Jerry Saltz, recently posted to his Instagram that, “Our taste always reveals us; so always reveal your tastes. The good, the bad, the very bad, the depraved, the dirty, the dopey…” Ken Nevadomi embeds all of those things and more into his Neo-Expressionist work, and forces the viewer to confront, own, and embrace our personal tastes.
Paintings in this exhibition lend a sense of calm amidst chaos; figures in works like Artist Paints a Burning Continent (1992) and Return of the Sailors (1991) appear to accept fate without any resistance. Unlike his earlier works embracing conflict and shock, these figures appear more matter-of-fact. Both works depict a post-apocalyptic world with figures gracefully posed within desolate landscapes littered with debris. They do not react to circumstances but allow the events to unfold around them. The figural groupings and poses display similarities to Symbolist paintings of the late 19th century, while Return of the Sailors nods to Sandro Chia’s Water Bearer (1981) as seen in the figure carrying the large fish slung over his shoulder. The image references Tobias in the Apocrypha, whom an angel instructed to carry fish that wards off demons, finds love, and heals his ailing father.
Burning Continent addresses the topic of climate change in a world where figures appear nude in a dried-up seabed. The barren environment shows a figure holding the skeleton of a large aquatic creature while wildfires consume the landscape in the distance. By placing a woman being seduced by an exotic merman front and center, Nevadomi questions Humanity’s ability to change and rise above base desires. He doesn’t pass judgment on his subject matter though, instead he shows Man’s penchant for survival and adaptation.
Symbolism reacted to the materialism found in Western culture, making extensive use of Biblical and mythological references. These artists fixated on women depicted as femme fatales or virgin archetypes, and references to their work fit into Nevadomi’s larger oeuvre. These compositional connections, particularly to Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, also make sense when viewed in terms of Nevadomi’s other major influence, Pablo Picasso who was strongly informed by de Chavannes. As Michael Wolf points out in his introduction for the exhibition, “Nevadomi chose to confront, head-on, one of his greatest heroes and inspirations: Pablo Picasso. He admired this ‘giant’ for most of his life, having spent hours in front of Picasso’s majestic Blue Period masterpiece, La Vie, in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.” In a cheeky nod to the artist, Nevadomi paints Picasso’s disembodied, floating head in Fishing with Picasso.
Nevadomi utilizes myth in many works on display, like those in the Variation on the Myth of Persephone series and Moon in Labyrinth (1993), where archetypes clue the viewer in on what the artist is communicating. The implications of myths changing throughout history expounds on Nevadomi’s notion that meaning in his work is found with the contemporary viewer. What one sees in the paintings at first may evolve or completely change over time as he described in a 1984 interview with Dennis Barrie, “maybe this year it will strike somebody as meaning one thing, and a year from now it will strike somebody as meaning something entirely different, which is fine.” Nevadomi has been consistent throughout his career not to give too much information about his paintings; he wants viewers to work out meanings for themselves.
A symbol of death and rebirth – or even the cycles of seasons – the story of Persephone is also about abduction and rape. In this myth, she holds little agency over events that happen to her. Nevadomi illustrates this by painting Persephone with stoic or vacant facial expressions. She is neither happy nor distressed about her situation – she is just there. In Variation on the Myth of Persephone (1990), a story where a woman is seen as property, Hades tricks her into eating pomegranate seeds and ties her forever to the underworld.
Cleverly, Nevadomi’s figural depictions in the Persephone paintings make reappearances, like those in Variation on the Myth of Persephone (with Tree) (1990). The foreground depiction of Persephone leaning against a tree is repeated in the painting, Woman Visited by God (1989), giving the figure a sense of innocence. The splayed figure in the background makes appearances in several paintings of Nevadomi’s Tube Strange series, which deals more overtly with sexual yearnings. This cross-usage of the figures from painting to painting helps the artist define Persephone as an object of desire.
While most of exhibition features textured surfaces, it is interesting to see works displayed that are stylistically different. Known to combine techniques, or even to create in a completely different modes altogether, Nevadomi chose to paint one of the two exhibited Lot’s Wife (1993) canvases in the manner of Mark Kostabi. The scene depicts faceless Kostabi-esque figures trying to escape a high-rise tower turned upside down and crashing to the ground. This commentary on unbridled capitalism, or economic warfare and collapse, is something Nevadomi writes about extensively in his sketchbooks. The commodification of art is just one aspect of the message. While it is unclear why Nevadomi was painting in this style, it could be because Kostabi was concerned more with money and success than artistic expression. Perhaps this sentiment is part of why Nevadomi remained in Cleveland his entire career, as Dougls Max Utter writes in his CAN Journal article, The Panther’s Teeth, “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.”
After seeing the works on exhibit, it shouldn’t be a wonder that Nevadomi paid homage to Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse from 1910. This artist masterfully combined both modernist ideas and classical Greek sculptural forms into his masterpiece to eschew drama and maintain simplicity. Nevadomi’s Sleeping Head (1993), depicting Brancusi’s peaceful and enigmatic sculpture, combines contemporary and ancient subjects. However, in his other paintings, Nevadomi departs from the drama-free ambitions that Brancusi sought.
While human nature gravitates toward the outré, Saltz concluded in his Instagram post, “To think vile & sentimental things – to be taken up by ‘problemitized’ things – doesn’t make you vile & sentimental or even ‘problematic.’” Nevadomi challenges us. His work involves a great deal of examination and thought, as he embraces polemic subject matter. The exhibition at WOLFS, Dancing on the Moon, like this review, only scratches the surface of Nevadomi’s complex and multi-layered body of work. As the first in a series of Nevadomi exhibitions, we can only imagine into what recesses of the human psyche we will be taken next.
Ken Nevadomi: Dancing on the Moon is on view from October 14th – December 23rd, 2021.
Christopher Richards was an assistant at WOLFS Gallery during the initial research, documentation, and New York presentations of Ken Nevadomi’s work.