“Although I’ve known him scarcely more than a year, I find Ken a fierce, kind man, obsessed with his work, and a devoted teacher with an ironic wit. Forget theories and imitation, if you’re Ken’s student, paint, work, think, dammit. You see through your own eyes with his assistance, you work on making your own art. Ken makes his own art in a harsh, uncomfortable, but sometimes humorous way. He’s the genuine article, and we’re delighted to exhibit and document his work.” -Susan R. Channing

 

Variation on Myth of Europa (II), 1986, acrylic, 72 x 60 inches

 

What impresses you most about the art of Ken Nevadomi is its honesty and its directness. In attempting to understand the nature of things, he avoids the superficial cliches and the escapist fantasies of much contemporary art. Instead, his paintings make us acutely aware of the conflict between human values and the increasingly complex, technological world in which we live. Although filled with serious content, Nevadomi’s art does not offer facile solutions to such difficult issues. The images he creates are not always easy to understand, nor can they be described as “beautiful” in the conventional sense of offering something inherently pleasant or soothing to look at, but their truthfulness casts such a powerful light on the contradictions and difficulties faced by the individual in the modern world that they demand our attention.

 

Political Deviand with Keeper, 1984, acrylic, 60 x 66 inches

 

Nevadomi grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, attended both Cooper School of Art in Cleveland and the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, and received an MFA from Kent State University. Currently Associate Professor of Art at Cleveland State University, he has also taught at Cooper School of Art and Kent State University. Among his more recent awards are first prize for painting at the Butler Institute’s Midyear Painting Exhibition of 1983, top prize for painting at The Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show in 1986, three Ohio Arts Council Individual Fellowships (1978, 1980, 1984), and his painting Adam and Eve Dance with Animals was included in the 39th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington D.C. in 1985. Despite having achieved national recognition through exhibitions of his work in New York, Toronto, Cincinnati, and Washington D.C., Nevadomi still lives and works in Ohio—a fact he considers entirely irrelevant to his creative activity.

The essential strength of Nevadomi’s art derives from the way he combines meaningful content with a forceful, painterly style. Any examination of his paintings of the past decade would disclose a continuing preoccupation with certain themes and ideas. Random Porker Boy of 1978, the earliest work in this exhibition, is a gruesome scene in which a butcher carves the corpse of a pig with such sadistic pleasure that he appears more animalistic than his victim. This painting looks back to Pork Chop Afternoon of 1974 and Attacking the A&P of 1977, and its pessimistic tone is echoed by the artist’s Anti-Urban series of 1978 and his Death of Cleveland series of 1979.

 

Pork Chop Afternoon, 1973, 60 x 60.5 inches

 

Since 1980, Nevadomi has increasingly turned to themes implying much broader, more universal meanings. The subjects of his recent paintings elude fixed or finite definition, and instead, seem to operate on the level of myth. Our interpretation of them must necessarily remain highly subjective; none of those presented here were offered by the artist. But what we discover when viewing these works is a complex mythology conveyed through certain obsessive, recurring images: men attacked by animals or trapped in cages, people falling or drowning or trapped in burning buildings, a pair of men locked in a violent embrace. Time and time again we are forced to become silent witnesses to otherwise unnoticed scenes of brutality and torture. Many paintings involve images of flight and pursuit—in The Oarsman a man rows furiously away in a boat, in Man in a Landscape a naked figure flees into a dense primordial forest, and in Man Who Lived in a Refrigerator a figure surrounded by a cage and violently tilted buildings rushes head-long into an icebox. Scenes of flight and pursuit can also be found in Traumatized Vanity where a man slips into a room through an open window as a sleeping woman lies naked on a bed; and in the three-part series Intimations of Disaster a drowning man becomes the victim of nature or forces beyond his control: here roles are reversed so that torturer becomes victim, hunter becomes prey, the pursuer becomes the pursued.

 

Study for Fleeing Man and Child, 1984, acrylic, 30 x 22 inches

 

In all of these works Nevadomi avoids direct political statements by refusing to identify victim or torturer. Instead, we are left only with troubling questions: who are these figures, are we associated with the victims or the torturers, and if we remain passive witnesses are we also implicated in these events—an especially relevant question for an affluent society well aware but often silent about real crimes and atrocities committed around the world. These paintings suggest that Nevadomi is uncomfortable with the present state of things, especially the continuing cycle of suffering and victimization. Yet, at a time when pointed political statements and attacks on the administration have become so fashionable in the art world, Nevadomi avoids taking positions which would deny our potential culpability in the continuing cycle of violence. His art refuses to be “comfortable.”

Nevadomi’s steadfast refusal to take sides—to become an advocate for a specific idealogy—seems to reflect a fundamentally existential point of view which denies the validity of absolute values or rigid political doctrines. Instead, his art offers a constant “unmasking” of the darker side of human nature—a painful probing of hidden realities, topics avoided in normal discourse, subjects not rigidly defined or easily explained by rational analysis. Men attacked by animals imply a lack of control over destiny—a helplessness before fate. Themes referring to Adam and Eve or naked figures set in primordial forests, reinforced by the artist’s expressionist style, reflect a general tendency toward primitivism, i.e., a desire to strip away the veneer of civilization and expose man’s more fundamental, emotional, instinctual nature. Conflict arises when this primitive, instinctual persona intrudes upon a mechanized, technological world. The artist thus confronts us with the ambivalence of our victimization: are we truly the victims of mechanization or just our own animal natures?

 

Adam and Eve Take a Bath, 1983, acrylic, 60 x 60 inches

 

The disquieting content of Nevadomi’s art is accompanied by a powerful, sometimes violent, painterly style. Broken, twisted, and disjointed forms are often forced into compressed, chaotic spaces resulting in powerful pictorial tensions. The opposition of passive to aggressive shapes/colors often corresponds to the conflict between victim and torturer. Nevadomi applies paint rapidly and spontaneously with a heavily loaded brush, resulting in thickly textured surfaces possessing a strong physical presence. One element which distinguishes his paintings from those of other so-called “neo-expressionists” is Nevadomi’s tremendous command of technique and his understanding of human anatomy. In many paintings, the compositions are so thoroughly worked out that every inch of the canvas seems to explode with dynamic energy. The influence of the artist’s academic training is also reflected in his skillful representations of anatomy, as evident in such paintings as The Artist and His Model of 1985, one of the more traditional subjects in his art. In most cases, however, the violence or “primitivism” of his technique functions to reinforce the brutal honesty of the subject matter.

In combining a forceful expressionist style with meaningful content, Nevadomi unfolds a complex system of signs referring to but not “depicting” the contemporary world in any literal sense. Figures and objects are recognizable but not representational. Above all, his subjects imply such broad, universal meanings that they function on the level of myth. Indeed, his paintings offer a searching look behind the facade of appearances and the apparent randomness of events—a continual stripping away of the veneer of civilization—which allows us to examine the state of the human condition and the fate of the individual in the modern world.