Atypical painter Erin Cone: portrait of the artist as a commercial success

By Jeanne Claire Van Ryzin
April 14, 2005

Erin Cone doesn't give the same impression in person as she does in her self-portraits. The somewhat petite Cone is friendly and cheerful, if a little shy when she sits down for a chat on a sunny afternoon at Wally Workman Gallery. However, in the paintings that line the gallery walls, Cone's face and figure glower in harsh light. She looks stern, wary, apprehensive, aloof.

But really, Cone is a rather happy person these days. Even if she is exhausted right now, having driven in the night before from her home in Santa Fe, N.M., to open her fifth annual solo exhibit in Austin.

Perhaps she's happy because commercial success has found her, even if critical acclaim hasn't quite caught up with her work. (Cone has been celebrated, however, in these pages for years.)

"My career is pretty atypical," she says.

Indeed. Most art school graduates toil away at day jobs, creating art on the side and trying to break into juried group exhibits, hoping those just might lead to gallery representation and regular solo shows.

Cone took another course. The [Lubbock] native landed in Austin halfway through her undergraduate career when her husband, Wil (her high-school sweetheart), started graduate school. She completed her bachelor's degree at the University of Texas, and afterward went to work...for a book publisher. But she found [corporate work] to be a soul-crushing experience, and after a couple of years, she quit. Two weeks after quitting, after virtually no research into Austin galleries, she approached longtime dealer Wally Workman, who signed Cone on immediately and scheduled her first solo exhibit.

Five years later, Cone is in a position where few 29-year-old artists find themselves. Her paintings fetch between $2,000 and $10,000. Her solo exhibits regularly sell out, and she and her husband were able to follow their bliss three years ago to Santa Fe, where she paints full time. But though she's gotten a few good reviews, Cone has never seen her work in a museum, nor had a curator select it for a juried show.

But that hasn't stopped people from clamoring after her paintings. Perhaps that's because -- though she mostly paints self-portraits or portraits of people close to her, such as her husband -- the figures remain tantalizingly unspecific. In fact, Cone doesn't really think of her self-portraits as, well, pictures of herself. "Of course, the figures themselves are very stylized," she says. "And in that sense they aren't specifically realistic. But I'm really only using myself because it's easier for me to pose the way I want than it is if I try to use someone else."

Indeed, her creative process is a pretty private affair. After finding her poses and crafting the harsh lighting, Cone snap[s] photographs from which she culls. She then combines the stylized poses with the abstract, almost harshly minimal, backgrounds or flat color blocks and lines. In the end, the individuality of her figures becomes even more vague.

Cone wants it that way. Above all else, she is fascinated by the human form and the different ways it can express emotional states -- she'd just rather not reveal all the particulars.

"I want to show all of the emotion of a certain moment, but none of the context," she says. "I'd rather people find their own stories in my paintings."

That's certainly the case for arts patron Bettye Nowlin, who is board president of the Austin Museum of Art. She owns a painting by Cone that features a male figure whose face is buried in his crossed arms. "There is nothing to give you a clue about what's behind the painting, so you are free to make it up yourself," Nowlin says. "On days that I'm tired, so is he. On days that I'm distraught, so is he."

And that's exactly the response Cone intends: that her paintings are endless yet enigmatic mirrors of the human condition.