Art Review: Cathy Cone Layers Past and Present in 'There Was Once' at Minema Gallery | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Art Review: Cathy Cone Layers Past and Present in 'There Was Once' at Minema Gallery


Published December 1, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Cathy Cone
  • "A Capella Crack"

Like visual analogues of a foreign language, Cathy Cone's black-and-white photographs elude easy interpretation. Viewers might find themselves wondering what happened just before an image was created, or whether clues to the mystery lurk beyond the frame.

What are we to make of, for example, the tableau in "Setting Place"? Shot from directly overhead, a dead pheasant lies on a clear glass dish. Next to the stilled creature is a white triangle — a folded paper napkin — with a fork laid in its center. We recognize the objects. We admire the photograph's saturated black and crisp white, the texture of feathers, the neat alignment of bird beak and pointed napkin. Yet it seems that mystery itself is the subject.

"Some people call it recognizing the unrecognizable," Cone said.

She doesn't take photos; she makes them, Cone emphasized. Through some alchemy of intuition, meditation and technology, she achieves images that make us linger, absorbed, before them.

Seven of Cone's black-and-white Piezography photos, richly printed on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, are currently on view at Johnson's Minėmå Gallery. Six share one wall of the modest space, one is displayed in the storefront window, and all merit a viewer's contemplation.

Clamoring for attention, though, are the half dozen works in vivid color hung around the rest of the room.

These represent quite a different direction in Cone's work: tintype portraits that she scans, enlarges and reproduces in limited-edition archival pigment prints. She then hand-paints them in gouache or watercolor or digitally draws on their surfaces.

  • Courtesy Of Cathy Cone
  • "Cloud"

These evocative images are rooted in both the history of early photography and the long-ago lives of their subjects. As such, they give meaning to the exhibit's title, "There Was Once."

Cone said she has been collecting tintypes since the 1970s. Popular when the American Civil War was raging and into the early 20th century, the format allowed ordinary people to obtain portraits. Eventually, images of these forgotten ancestors ended up in antique stores and estate sales.

Most of the manipulated portraits exhibited at Minėmå are individual faces, and most are female. In one piece, titled "Poise," Cone cut a young woman's portrait into enigmatic, organic shapes, printed them on rosy-pink paper and drew on the resulting picture in a darker pink shade.

A group composition, called "Three Guys," depicts a trio of men who might be brothers, friends or coworkers. Cone gave it a magenta watercolor wash, yet the fixed stares of the three guys come through.

In the exhibit's largest work — a long horizontal piece titled "A Capella Crack" — Cone combined multiple faces, male and female, in two tiers. She augmented the portraits with stylized drawings and botanical shapes and bordered the lower tier with swaths of vintage floral wallpaper. The whole composition, framed in yellow and red, is lively and luscious. What would these serious-looking folks think of their visages now?

  • Courtesy Of Cathy Cone
  • "Setting Place"

All the tintypes have one thing in common: static poses — the subjects had to hold still for a long time and apparently did not smile.

Cone finds nuance in the faces, though. "There's something in the glance that I became interested in," she said. "There's an inner reflection that has its own space."

Once she has scanned the portraits — many originals are quite tiny — and enlarged them to a workable size, Cone makes her additions, which she likened to "painting their aura.

"These people are time travelers," she posited. "They're messengers from another time."

But the messages are obscure. Both the photographers and the subjects are now unknown. The images are like documents with most of the facts redacted.

In response, it's tempting to make up stories or personalities for these individuals — who they might have been, what their clothing or hairstyles or expressions tell us. Of the "Three Guys," one looks a little impish, another morose, the third like he's got better things to do. But these are imaginings; the artist herself is "not interested in a linear story," she said. Cone prefers to "sit with that frozen gesture and contemplate it.

  • Courtesy Of Cathy Cone
  • "Three Guys"

"It's like a duet — the twin-ness comes through, the photo and the painting," she continued. "Each has its own integrity, but they come together — it's a kind of magical meeting place."

Cone said she likes the presence of her hand in these artworks. But she also appreciates the layering made possible with photographic and printing processes. For that, she has the considerable advantage of working at Cone Editions Press — the renowned printing and teaching facility in East Topsham. She and her husband, master printer Jon Cone, founded the studio in Port Chester, N.Y., in 1980 as an artists' printmaking collaborative.

Four years later, Jon Cone began experimenting with computers and went on to invent a number of printmaking technologies over the years — Cone Editions is considered a digital pioneer in the field. He has also developed inks and software processes for Epson inkjet printers. The couple moved their home and business to Vermont in 1990.

  • Courtesy Of Cathy Cone
  • "Poise"

Cathy Cone is the creative director for Cone Editions. "I do a lot of outreach, originating print dates for artists, brainstorming with the team about what's next," she described. "May through October we offer various workshops, and we have new programs including residencies."

But Cone's "main stuff" is editing, she said. "When people bring in their work, I really enjoy that — helping people sort out their portfolios."

Though Cone generally does the sorting of her own work, for this exhibition she credits Minėmå owners and life partners Kyle Nuse and Michael Mahnke for their role in the curation. "I think they have a beautiful, poetic vision," Cone said.

That vision, it appears, matches her own.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Mystery Repeating"

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