This artist paints abstracts, not rivers and trees
By Daniel Barnes
It is important for any artist to feel at home in his studio, but Andy Cunningham managed to take the concept to a whole new level.
A prolific Sacramento painter who was tired of sharing Downtown studio space with artists and bands, Cunningham created his own studio by building a quasi-house on a corner lot in the northernmost reaches of East Sacramento. The former owners split the property into two parcels and sold what was once the backyard to Cunningham, who built a structure with enough amenities to pass inspection. He doesn’t live in the space, but building codes still required him to include a bathroom and a bare-bones kitchen.
Otherwise, he left the studio largely an unfinished shell, more of an oversized man cave than a home, with paint-splattered cement floors, makeshift
plywood tables and a garage overflowing with old paintings. “It gives me space to think,” says Cunningham, who recently brought his works to China as part of a show of Sacramento and Chinese artists. “I like to keep my head down and keep going forward, and this space allows me to do that.”
Isolated and unique, the studio makes an almost-too-easy metaphor for Cunningham’s position in the local arts scene. An abstract artist who specializes in nonobjective explorations of color and shape, Cunningham often finds himself on the outside of a mainstream Sacramento art world that favors representational images of rivers and trees. And although he made a striking contribution to last year’s ArtStreet, an art pop-up event held in and around an old warehouse near Broadway, he also doesn’t fit the mold of the urban artists and muralists who are driving change in the local scene.
“Sacramento desperately wants to be a city, but the city is not the dirt and earth anymore. It’s an abstracted experience,” says Cunningham, whose work is influenced by “hard-edge abstractionists” like Frank Stella and Brice Marden. Although he remains an outlier in the Sacramento scene, he sees hope in the change brought by groups like M5 Arts and Verge Center for the Arts. “I definitely see the needle moving more toward not necessarily abstraction, but anything other than cows and rivers and sunsets,” says Cunningham.
Born in New York and raised between there and the Bay Area, Cunningham was back in New York City attending graduate school at Hunter College when his wife became pregnant with their first child. The new family returned to Northern California, eventually settling in Sacramento, where Cunningham played the role of “artist and at-home dad” and found a job teaching art at Sacramento Country Day School.
The busy schedule didn’t do much to raise his profile. “Come 8 o’clock on a Friday night, I was reading ‘Harry Potter’ to my kids,” says Cunningham. “I didn’t have the energy or the desire to be out shaking hands, so I figured I would spend more time in the studio.”
Cunningham describes his work as “colorful and whimsical,” and the many paintings that cover his studio walls attest to his love of “color for color reasons,” as well his obsession with exploring shapes.
Rather than chasing trends, Cunningham has preferred to chase his own muse, no matter where it leads him. “Throughout time, many of the great experimenters have nearly killed themselves with explosions, and in that they found a whole new thing,” says Cunningham. “By making work in a serious progression, just keeping my head down and moving forward, that’s going to get me where I want to go.”
Cunningham concentrates almost solely on paintings, but he stepped outside of his comfort zone for ArtStreet, creating a playful yet powerful piece featuring nine shrink-wrapped wheelbarrows sitting atop spray-painted wooden plinths. “He has always stuck to his guns,” says Cunningham’s friend and fellow artist, Salvatore Victor. “He’s somebody who doesn’t get caught in a formula.”
ArtStreet also helped connect Cunningham with Lin Fei Fei, the artist who sponsored the East Meets West show, held this past July in Shenyang, China. Already off from work for summer vacation, Cunningham seized the opportunity to travel to Shenyang for the exhibit, carrying his artwork as luggage. “I don’t know if I’ve sold anything because of the show, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he says.
Back in Sacramento, his studio remains a hive of activity. Next to the stairs sits a cardboard tube filled with artwork that Cunningham is sending to a show in Los Angeles, and he sent two other paintings to Connecticut just the day before. “His work is vastly recognized outside of here and amongst his peers, but he doesn’t get the recognition in Sacramento that I think he deserves,” says Victor.
“Maybe my market is somewhere else. Maybe I don’t have a market,” says Cunningham. “I’m just going to keep funneling artwork into my garage, if that’s what it takes.”
To see Andy Cunningham’s art, go to saatchiny.andyc.
Daniel Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org