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Artist Dave Cole builds new framing for a fiery world

A closer look at Dave Cole’s “New Landscapes” exhibition.Viera Levitt/UMass Dartmouth University Art Gallery

NEW BEDFORD — Dave Cole’s work has always had a brawny, masculine elegance. The artist, formerly of Providence and now a New Yorker, is a volunteer fireman who learned to use tools in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop. “New Landscapes,” his exhibition at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth University Art Gallery, is made with construction materials and fire, among other things.

His paintings on cement board are brooding, luminous skyscapes over distant urban horizons made with beeswax, shoe polish, and fire. They’re apocalyptic yet timeless, because apocalypse is less and less futuristic these days. Recalling J.M.W. Turner’s romantic 19th-century seascapes, they churn with shadows immanent with light. The yellow-orange cast to the skies, clotted with brown clouds, could depict California wildfires.


The clouds hang over strings of land spiked with spires or smokestacks, suggesting an old factory town trapped beneath smog. Up close, buildings dissolve into abstract marks: jagged, violent abrasions in a painting’s glossy surface.

A view of Dave Cole's “New Landscapes" exhibition.Viera Levitt/UMass Dartmouth University Art Gallery

A maze of old windows salvaged from a mill in Pawtucket (an old factory town), hangs in the center of the gallery. Paint-chipped and worn, they drop from the ceiling in overlapping grids, low enough to engulf a viewer from the shoulders up. They layer like interlocking puzzles, creating corners and boxes, inviting us inside to look out. This installation places us squarely within the art; the paintings, in contrast, offer us a distant vision.

Suspended off the floor, Cole’s windows might be Jacob’s ladders, beckoning us toward heaven and a release from what plagues us. Made of humble industrial scrap wood, they were in a previous life surrounded by smoke, dust, and toil. Now they’re ringed by smoldering paintings full of light and foreboding, made of ordinary shoe polish.

In this show, light is not separate from dark; representation is not separate from abstraction. A distant vision is not separate from what is found inside, and glory is implicit in the mundane. Shaking free of binaries, Cole invites us to unlock our own strict formulas. Open the windows, let the light in, and see with new eyes.


DAVE COLE: New Landscapes

At University of Massachusetts Dartmouth University Art Gallery, 715 Purchase St., New Bedford. Open by appointment through Jan. 8.www.umassd.edu/cvpa/universityartgallery

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.