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Imagined Places

Matt Cotten captures the joys and horrors of children's books

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Matt Cotten is best known around town as a co-founder of Tucson Puppet Works, a puppeteer extraordinaire who helped usher in a new era of puppetry in the Old Pueblo.

He is also a compassionate teacher who spends the autumnal months helping the bereaved make giant puppet heads of their late loved ones to wear in the annual All Souls Procession. And Cotten himself has participated in the masking transformation. He's honored his late father and grandmother by wearing puppet masks of their faces on his own head.

But Cotten is also a painter—and a dad—and both those vocations come to public light in a new exhibition at the UA Poetry Center.

Run Cookie Run! gathers five of his acrylic paintings on canvas, and 15 paintings on board, all of them inspired by the children's books he reads to his little girl every night. His magical paintings are set in childlike dreamscapes, filled with visions that shift rapidly from sunny to dark. A cheerful crocodile dressed decorously in waistcoat and apron in one painting gives way to a gingerbread man running terrified through a dark forest in another.

Childhood is a volatile mix of terrors and joys, and like the best fairy tales and children's books (and their illustrations), Cotten's psychologically rich paintings mix the two. He smudges the boundary between reality and fantasy, recalling in an artist's statement that during his own boyhood, he "sometimes had 'waking dreams' during which every single thing in my room was alive. ... I draw from that childhood consciousness, where distinction is blurry."

"Alley Score" is the biggest and most ambitious piece in the show, about 5 feet high by 3 feet wide. Summing up Cotten's major themes, it investigates liminal space, the imaginative borderlands where one reality stops and another starts. (Think of the closet in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.)

The painting is set in an alley, a literal liminal space, a no-man's land where the backyard ends and the magic begins. Everything is possible in this imagined place out past the back fence.

A boy walks half on a roof, half in the air. A disembodied head—a giant puppet mask, perhaps—floats nearby. Children's drawings hover here and there. Some houses are fully fleshed out, painterly cubes in nicely layered, brushy pigments; others are mere outlines, vanishing homes that may be here one minute, and gone the next.

That crocodile, the one in the apron, is straight out of art history, from "The Peasant Wedding," painted in 1568 by the medieval Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. (Cotten taught art at the UA for 15 years.) In Bruegel's famous work, two men carry a large rough wooden tray loaded with freshly baked pies for rowdy wedding guests.

In Cotten's re-imagining of that boisterous work, a crocodile and a fish walk on human legs, and both wear medieval garb. They're carrying the tray, but this time, it's loaded up not with pastry, but with an array of books that serve up food for the imagination.

A little girl is at the center of the painting, heading right into this delightful wonderland, where animals are half-human, where architecture transmutes at will, where children fly. A floating man, his face masked—shades of dad, no doubt—holds her hand, leading the way.

Cotten the painter is at his best here. Loose drawing mixes with lively brushwork. The acrylic paint is lush and lovely, with colorful layerings of warm colors—ocher, gold—against cool greens and blues.

"Remus and Romulus" is a northern-looking landscape painting, all blue-green and watery, of a place that looks more like the West of Ireland than ancient Rome. But the baby founders of the city are in the shadow of the benevolent she-wolf who, as myth has it, saved their lives by feeding them her own milk. One of the happy little boys is buried in the wolf's fur, busily nursing, while the other one smiles and raises his little hand in triumph.

Besides suggesting that the Cottens, father and daughter, have a rather sophisticated reading list, the painting touches on an important archetype of childhood and of children's books: the kindly animal. Kids love animals deeply and bond with them intensely; while children are still small, perhaps on the floor with the pets, they identify with them.

Cotten's little paintings abound in animals. His redo of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit is in the garden in a charming striped coat; a pair of dogs in a neon-colored desert backyard cheerfully peer into the house through a window.

The window frame is an important component of many of the small paintings, including a pair of works about the Gingerbread Man. Remember that brave little cookie? He bravely ran to freedom, merrily escaping from the kitchen and all manner of foes, shouting, "You can't catch me; I'm the Gingerbread Man!" But the cunning fox got him at the end, and ate him up in a single gulp.

On the surface, the story is an amusing, mildly cautionary tale meant to keep children from straying—and maybe teach them not to be too arrogant. But Cotten's frightening "Gingerbread Man Running Through the Forest at Night" is all about nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

The little guy is painted the dark purple of a bruise; his smile is forced and feeble, and his eyes are panicked. It's a winter night, and the forest of dark blue rootless trees behind him seems to be moving every which way, blocking his escape. He's looking into the window, apparently pleading for help from the unseen child within.

In "Run Cookie! Through the Cypress," it's still winter, and the world is even more off-kilter. Now a row of dark-green barriers—more trees, perhaps—is sliding down on the diagonal behind the Gingerbread Man. Cold white snow is in the foreground. Framed by the window in the foreground, this Cookie, bright-orange, aflame with emotion, is looking upward in despair; his mouth is open wide in a look of pure terror.

Cotten's frame device readily captures the boundaries of a small child's world. Outside that window, anything can happen, but the child who gazes out onto that outside world is still, for the moment, safe at home. And maybe, operating from her place of safety, in the security of a life still lived under the protection of dad and family, she can reach out and lend a hand to the embattled Gingerbread Man.

Run Cookie Run!Paintings by Matt Cotten

Reception: 5:30 p.m., Monday, May 3

Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday and Thursday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday, through Wednesday, May 26

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