Garden shears. A top hat. A woman in profile tying her shoe. The subjects of Kenton Nelson’s paintings are everything and at the same time nothing compared to the visceral and sensual feelings they almost instantly evoke.
At first glance he reminds you of a high school classmate you haven’t seen in years. Stick a calculator in his shirt pocket and he’s an engineer; dress him in all whites and he’s the pro who taught backhand at the neighborhood tennis court. At second glance he’s anything but. A late-breaking self-taught painter—he bought his first paints at 40—Kenton Nelson describes his style as narrative idealism. His bold, large-scale works are as three-dimensional as two dimensions will allow, with subjects framed in graphic angularity and amplified by deep and sultry shadowing.
“I try to paint that absurd notion of the ideal,” said Nelson of his œuvre. “When something is too perfect, it’s a little uncomfortable. And I like that.”
Growing up in Pasadena during the 1950s and ’60s, Nelson’s grandmother, a flamenco dancer who came to the U.S. to entertain the troops, regaled him with stories of her brother: artist, muralist and illustrator Roberto Montenegro, who as a central figure among Mexico’s literati hosted the garden nuptials of close friends Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Nelson thumbs through a worn scrapbook of Montenegro’s calligraphic letters sent home from Europe and the accompanying black-and-whites of him posing beside heads of state, celebrated artists and cultural icons.
“Those guys were lions to me,” said Nelson, “especially since they inspired our WPA [Works Progress Administration] painters, whose murals and posters uplifted an entire generation of Americans during the Depression. I thought: How cool would it be to put out positivity?”
Nelson celebrates his Southern California roots with a collection of searing beach and backyard poolside pieces. Often using his wife (“She’s my ideal, so she’s very easy to paint”) as model and muse, he depicts classical, impossibly beautiful women engaged in the most mundane of activities: standing watch, hands on hips, from the lifeguard chair; engrossed in a page-turner; admiring a swan dive; shedding a tee. Somehow, that familiarity conveys a sense of voyeurism that along with Nelson’s trademark shadowing drives the paintings’ overwhelming sensuality. Women and men alike gaze in rapture at Nelson’s works and are unwittingly drawn into the intriguing story hiding within. This clever device, ripped from the advertisements of midcentury magazines and roadside billboards, gives all of Nelson’s subjects, from carpenter’s tools to high-heeled shoes, their most profound allure.
“More is more,” said Nelson. “Hitchcock doesn’t give it all away and that’s where his power lies. I’d much rather wonder and think of the possibilities than be given too much information.”
Back to the Future
Be they objects, structures or people, Nelson’s subjects recall his 1960s youth and, like the ads of that era, are infused with promise and hope for a better tomorrow. “I couldn’t wait for the future when I was a kid,” said Nelson. “That was such a part of growing up. You don’t hear that now and you don’t appreciate the little things that defined us. There are ideas that simply cannot be improved,” he said. “That’s why I love a hose nozzle. It’s a perfect machine.”
Information is withheld in more ways than one. Drawing inspiration from old family photos, Nelson found that cropping a picture could change the story entirely. Flying in the face of conventional art-school wisdom, he plays with the borders of both canvas and subject, intentionally redefining edges and eliminating essential parts.
“If you cut off someone’s head, if you lose the eyes, it becomes Everyman,” he said. “Someone once asked me for a nude, so I painted a woman’s shoes and stockings at the foot of a bed.”
Art with a Wink
An avid reader and music lover as well as a keen observer of everyday life, Nelson has a sense of humor that extends beyond the painter’s palette and into his titling and marketing endeavors. Dexterity with words and an ability to express the nuances of a seemingly simple object bring smiles and an answering wink to viewers of all stripes.
“I fell in love with it the minute I saw it,” said Janet Hadley, who five years ago acquired a fetching “Kenton” cleverly titled “Two Seats.” “The era, the attire takes me back to my own coming of age, but it also stokes my imagination as I concoct endless stories of dreams, desire, hope and possibility.”
When school kids visit his studio, he shares the fatherly advice that he espouses on a daily basis and credits largely with his commercial success. “Write down your objectives and work methodically,” he counsels. “I’m in here from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and I usually have a Trader Joe’s burrito for lunch at the easel. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. And if you do something poorly, you don’t work.”
With requests for gallery shows on the rise and the occasional museum knocking at his door, Nelson has no intention of slowing down. He has begun experimenting with public art and will be installing a wall mural in downtown Pasadena later this year. His goals? The same as they’ve been for 20 years: continually set higher hurdles and paint outside of his depth.
So long as Kenton Nelson is able to paint what he loves and see it resonate with others, he appears primed for a long and illustrious career. “I want to be a great artist,” he said, “but great is a big word. Your best work is always your next work, so I may never retire.”
Kenton Nelson’s art is featured in the Peter Mendenhall Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Space 8, Los Angeles, CA 90048. To view his full collection of works, please visit kentonnelson.com.