Kenton Nelson at Peter Mendenhall

The line between illustration and fine art becomes blurry sometimes. When this happens, both categories can benefit. The specificity and narrative potential of  illustration’s paradigm can infuse fine art with a matter-of-factness so often missing. Conversely, fine art’s pretension can lend resonance to illustration’s cul de sac pleasures.

This “both/and” synthesis is in ample evidence at Kenton Nelson’s solo exhibition at Peter Mendenhall Gallery through July 13th.

Kenton Nelson, Front Yard, 2013 Watercolor on Paper, 10.25×7 inches
Courtesy Peter Mendenhall Gallery

The exhibition consists of one large oil painting and more than 20 watercolors in either of two rather intimate scales (10.25 x 7 or 12 x 9 inches.) While the oil painting is of a scale and consistency of Nelson’s aesthetic trajectory,  it is the watercolors that sing and by their sheer quantity, take center stage. Nelson has developed a style and an iconography that has a decidedly post war baby boomer veneer. The populated tableaux are laced with sex but are seldom sexy. The landscapes are muted and clean and pregnant with narrative potential. The mood is close to the tension found in Todd Haynes Far from Heaven.

Kenton Nelson, Red Top, 20 Watercolor on Paper, 10.25×7 inches
Courtesy Peter Mendenhall Gallery

The Still Life watercolors play with out-sized scale. The thermos in Red Top has the same monumentality as William Eggelston’s tricycle on a Memphis sidewalk. In another titled Absent, we see an empty school desk with a blackboard in the near distance. A raking diagonal shadow cuts the scene into light and dark. The compositional approach of Absent is part interior and part still life. The planes of color, squares, rectangles and triangles deconstruct nicely into a quasi-Diebenkorn structure.

Kenton Nelson, Strange Fruit, 2013, Watercolor on Paper, 12×9 inches
Courtesy Peter Mendenhall Gallery

Nelson handles watercolor in a singular manner. The surface is chalky and matte even behind the glazing of the frames. The touch is deliberate and controlled. Improvisation is not in Nelson wheelhouse. But this level of control is at the behest of mood. It never feels restrictive

The titles are mostly succinctly descriptive: Lean, Setting Up, Wash Line and Front Yard. The only dissonant chord is struck with the title Strange Fruit which depicts a pair of sneakers hanging from a telephone wire. Not only is the image more rooted in a contemporary setting, but the quotation from Billie Holiday’s haunting elegy to lynching seems not only oddly insensitive but also out of character with the rest of the exhibition.

Kenton Nelson, Blue Dress, 2013, Watercolor on Paper, 9×12 inches
Courtesy Peter Mendenhall Gallery

The star of the show is a watercolor titled Blue Dress. Compositionally rigorous, narratively comely, and striking a balance between the aforementioned Fine Art/Illustration polarities, Blue Dress packs a wallop. For it’s intimate scale, it works on nearly operatic terms. And the Blue of that dress, it’s tangible translucence and texture, exists only in the realm of aesthetic imagination.

Kenton Nelson at Peter Mendenhall Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., through July 13th, 2013

-Mario M. Muller, Los Angeles, June 20th, 2013


also by Mario M. Muller

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