Ask Austin Furtak-Cole about his paintings and the conversation is apt to veer toward existential concerns. When one can handle paint as well as this 32-year-old — Furtak-Cole has shown work in London, Toronto and New York City — what takes over, evidently, is intense questioning. With constantly evolving work that generally marries abstraction and figuration, Furtak-Cole asks such questions as, “What are the limits of paint?” and “Can meaning be found in a post-religious world?”
That said, “Heavy Handed,” his current show at the Vermont Studio Center’s Red Mill Gallery in Johnson, may well inspire a chuckle at first. Cartoonish clouds, rough hand imagery and impossibly intricate knots appear in the show’s small, square, wood-panel paintings and trace monoprints. One image frames two pairs of black sunglasses with face-shaped formations of puffy pink clouds; another shows a tongue sticking from a hole in a cloud.
“There’s definitely humor built into this,” agrees the affable artist, running a hand through his multidirectional red hair. In this light-filled gallery he has hung 17 paintings and prints; more prints line the walls of the Interim Gallery down the hall. The exhibit is Furtak-Cole’s last at VSC — where he is finishing a two-year term as staff artist — and his last Vermont show before he moves to New York City in January.
Humor has shown up before in his work, in paintings of melting ice cream and friendly, cartoon-like ghosts. The clouds in the current show, however, are partly inspired by religious imagery Furtak-Cole encountered on recent trips to Rome and Madrid.
One ascension painting in the Prado’s basement, he recalls, featured a pair of feet “awkwardly escaping” into clouds — an image he directly references in one monoprint that depicts not two but three feet.
Furtak-Cole’s artist-mother and musician-father “purposefully” excluded religion from his upbringing. But lacking “that structure to rely on,” he says, “has forced me to find my own meaning, to show what or how I can believe.” The hands in the current show, often partially obscured by clouds and loosely bound with ribbon, “are touching and sensing their way through this unknown,” he says. “They’re a metaphor for my own search as a person, but also as an artist.”
Furtak-Cole’s search has led him through an unusual number of exploratory phases for one so young. Previously, he favored large, abstract canvases such as those shown in “Fantasms,” a 2012 show at Stowe’s Helen Day Art Center.
By the time he created those, Furtak-Cole says, painting itself had begun to trouble him. For a skilled artist, he notes, painting can start to feel “less spontaneous” and more about “making beautiful marks” — which is one reason he tried monoprints for the first time. The brown, lightly smudged and (relatively) quickly executed works on white paper helped him temporarily set aside his struggles with issues of completion, color and abstraction.
Furtak-Cole has been grappling with such questions since childhood. Born in Newburgh, N.Y., he grew up in San Francisco, where his mother enrolled him in private painting classes at the age of 5. He enjoyed it, he says, but “my biggest issue was I never knew what to paint — why one thing was more important than another ... That was always a problem for me, until — well, now,” he adds with a laugh.
Back then, the budding artist responded by drawing “instead of thinking about what to draw.” The current show returns to those roots, mining his sketchbooks for both ideas and spontaneity.
But forget about not thinking. Furtak-Cole is “hungry,” as his mentor and VSC’s admissions coordinator David Grozinsky puts it. “I love that he’s always endeavoring toward evolving as an artist,” Grozinsky declares.
Furtak-Cole moved to Burlington at age 11. He attended Burlington High School, studied fine art at Green Mountain College in Poultney and earned a master’s in painting at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. For a couple years between degrees, however, he gave up painting. “I didn’t know how to find meaning in it,” the artist recalls. Instead, he taught ceramics to Middlebury school children — an art that at least found meaning in functionality.
In grad school, Furtak-Cole moved from a period of formal abstraction inspired by Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series toward abstract figures in the vein of Willem de Kooning, all while sketching unrelated, cartoonlike drawings. Later, he gravitated toward “more emotional” and “existential” artists such as Philip Guston. His strongest current influence, Guston was a Montréal-born member of the New York School of abstract expressionists who abandoned abstraction late in life to make cartoonish figures.
With those influences at work, it’s no wonder Dusty Boynton, a Hyde Park, Vt.-based artist with her own cartoonish approach to figuration, was impressed by Furtak-Cole. Boynton, who is represented in New York City by Denise Bibro Fine Art, recommended Furtak-Cole to Bibro, where four of his paintings were shown in a group exhibit over the summer. Furtak-Cole is the only artist Boynton has ever recommended to the gallery, she confirms by phone. It’s a good connection to have on one’s way to the Big Apple.
Meanwhile, the artist continues his struggle for meaning and that elusive balance between figuration and abstraction. “I’m still trying to bring those two things together,” he says. “As my career progresses, I get a little closer.”
“Heavy Handed” by Austin Furtak-Cole, Red Mill Gallery, Vermont Studio Center, Johnson. Through November 28. Reception, Wednesday, November 20, 7 to 9 p.m. austinfurtakcole.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Light Hands, Heavy Thoughts"