Some artists have careers which unfold over time – beautiful, clean arcs that advance doggedly toward a mature style. Not Ken Nevadomi. A fearless innovator and unapologetic iconoclast, Nevadomi’s creative journey rides like a rollercoaster: twisting, looping, and changing directions at break-neck speeds.
This June, the Artists Archives welcomes A Wild Ride: Ken Nevadomi 1976 – 2006, an exhibition which follows the soaring heights and hairpin turns of the artist’s remarkable career. Known for his provocative figure paintings which draw on influences from Expressionism to Pop Art and Surrealism, Nevadomi’s work stubbornly resists categorization and interpretation. This is no accident; it’s by design and Nevadomi outright refuses to give you a hand. Over decades, he has cultivated a reputation as one of the “most tightlipped painters in town,” forcing viewers to make sense of the winding road ahead with nary a guidepost in sight.
As curator Mindy Tousley describes, “Ken is an all-out painter. Over the years he consistently has not held anything back in his work. His stream of consciousness paintings explore his inner life without fear, in combination with ongoing investigations of various styles of representation. His creative search for something new and unexpected has confounded viewers and he truly doesn’t care. To me this is a real badass attitude. He is predictably and enjoyably unpredictable.”
Erroneous St. Bridgett, 1980, Acrylic on canvas, 59 x 67 inches, Collection of AAWR
A Wild Ride: Ken Nevadomi features 4 distinct categories of work: Pop & Funk Art, Expressionist tableaus, modernist nudes, and deconstructed paintings created by viciously slicing and reweaving his own canvases. These diverse styles were produced concurrently and on one occasion, brashly exhibited at competing shows. A Wild Ride also includes rare drawings which edify the artist’s aesthetic and demonstrate his technical prowess.
Somnambulist, 1992, Charcoal & graphite on paper, 52 x 42.5 inches, Collection of the artist
Though varied in execution, themes such as voyeurism, social rebellion, and the conflict between humanity and technology can be traced throughout Nevadomi’s work. While the paintings can feel like personal fever dreams, they also signal a deep discomfort with the insane pace and absurdist ideals of the contemporary life. This is particularly evident in Nevadomi’s Pop Funk images which channel the sex, violence, and hysteria of the modern experience. On loan from ARTneo is Attacking the A&P II, a cartoonish, pulsing canvas from 1976 which depicts a nude in a scuba mask and sneakers shooting through the window of the popular urban grocery chain. In the foreground, a garish pin-up flees the carnage, dodging the advances of a protruding hand sprouting from a speeding car. Some elements however, like the floating cactus-like patches of green, are destined to remain non-sequiturs.
In a rare 1991 artist statement Nevadomi explains “My painting has a lot to do with what I am thinking about- views that I may not even be aware of. I am going in a number of directions, and one thing I am doing is not consciously thinking about it. My feeling is that you don’t chose your ideas, your ideas choose you…The viewer has to figure it out. As a figurative artist, I focus on the figure, and the rest develops in ways I can’t predict.”
Horse Frightened by Demon, 1985, Acrylic on canvas, 64 x 69 inches, Collection of AAWR
A more overt critique of society, particularly of religion, is presented in several large Expressionist paintings from the Archives’ permanent collection. A prime example is Mysteries of Repulsion, which portrays a nude, dichromatic woman with her head jerked backwards into frame. In front a young girl, potentially her daughter, watches in horror, hemmed in by an eerily serene nun wielding a cross and flowers. To the left in an isolated plain, a man reclines on a sofa, bathed in the anesthetizing blue light of a small T.V. set. When viewed in the company of works like Adam and Eve at Sea which features the hapless couple sailing towards the edge of a flat earth, a pall of chaos and absurdism is unmistakably cast.
Mysteries of Repulsion, 1993, Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 58 inches, Collection of AAWR
Despite his creative anarchy and provocateur status, Nevadomi possessed a conventionally admirable resume which includes the title of Professor Emeritus at Cleveland State University and receiving the coveted Cleveland Arts Prize in 1988. His work has also been exhibited in countless regional and national exhibitions and is included the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Progressive Insurance, and Kaiser Permanente. This pedigree becomes evident in the more classical drawings and modernist nudes on view, such as the diffused Somnambulist or Nude on a Cat Mat which mirrors the subdued poise of Picasso’s Blue Period or the dreamy elegance of Modigliani’s ingénues.
Nude on a Cat Mat, 1996-1998, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 37.5 inches, Collection of AAWR
Perhaps the most radical offerings of the exhibition, however, are Nevadomi’s woven canvases. Created by slicing and reassembling his own work, the violent process creates a distorted mechanical Cubism; the act reads as unmistakably aggressive, both against his own artistic product, as well as toward the unhinged world they portray. This style is particularly successful in Short Circuit, a piece on loan from the artist’s estate revealing the glitching image of a barefoot man in a tie sitting with a remote control in front of an exploding television. Nevadomi reflects “I think it’s the idea that…. I or we don’t know where we are going… In a hostile universe or world. Where past and present are one or rearranged or happen at the same but going on in different directions… what’s the alternative? Who am we?”
Short Circuit, 2000, Acrylic on cut canvas, 38.5 x 38 inches, Collection of the artist
A Wild Ride: Ken Nevadomi 1976 – 2006 will be celebrated with an in-person reception on Thursday, June 17th, 5:30 – 8:00pm. No registration is needed but masks are required inside of the gallery.
On Wednesday July 14th 7:00 – 8:00pm, follow former ARTneo curator Christopher Richards on a house tour that highlights his personal collection, including paintings by Nevadomi and other local artists active in the 1970s. Christopher will discuss how he built his collection of Northeast Ohio art on a budget from both primary and secondary markets, and how he curates rooms to maximize the connection between pieces. The program will be followed by Q&A session so you can learn more stories in the adventures of collecting art.
Find more information on the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve website.