Our brains are uniquely tuned to respond to human faces. As the central palette of expression, we are built to recognize one another, if not by previous introduction, then by an innate understanding of emotions. Any further display can be left to artistic interpretation. Though, Billy Cone’s subject matter seems to stir up the age-old question: “What’s in a face?”
Bringing together decades of unique vision, “Billy Cone Works” comprises a collection of photographs, drawings and paintings inspired by daily life, entertainment and travels throughout Europe and the United States. Evoking equal parts emotion and whimsy, Cone’s contemporary pieces dwell on his favorite subjects—the female form and statuary—and pay particular attention to the human face. Thirty-one years after his first photography course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cone’s art has progressed through a process he calls “seeing,” which merges a photo’s crystallized version of the world with life beyond the camera lens.
For as long as memory serves, Cone has been surrounded by art—from buying and selling, to creating and supporting young artists—it’s his lifeblood. His great aunts, Etta and Claribel Cone, were celebrated art collectors of America’s Gilded Age. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Cone sisters travelled to Europe to purchase art with stipends provided by their brothers—Moses and Caesar of the former Cone Mills Corporation in Greensboro, NC. In France they became friends with literary behemoths like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas whose social circle included up-and-coming artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Together the sisters acquired one of the finest collections of modern French art in the United States.
Similar to his great aunts, France held artistic significance for Cone. Following a lifelong artistic dream, he travelled to Paris in 2002 to photograph European statuary. Its grandeur and permanence triggered Cone’s foray into the face.
“Statues aren’t like human beings; they’re much easier to photograph,” he says. “They’re fascinating because of the light and the weather-worn look, so it was good practice.”
After spending about three-fourths of his year abroad, snapping stationary figures, Cone decided to channel his energies into portraiture. Unlike the chiseled muses that originally had him hopping the pond, he sought natural beauties, sometimes opting out of modeling agency selections for subjects he found in his neighborhood coffee shop.
“Femme” is Cone’s fourth book of photography and the culmination of work he started in Paris, which eventually wrapped in the U.S. in 2007. Exploring the fairer sex through shadow and light, “Femme” features 78 individual studies of the female face. Set in the timeless perspective of black-and-white film, each image is a lesson in humanity—the subjects sharing complex dialogues with their eyes, or what Cone refers to as “the essential seat of human emotion.” “Eyes reveal emotion more than any part of the body,” he states. “Eyes make it hard to hide the truth people carry around with them.”
Echoing the deep-seated beauty and emotion of his subjects, Cone sprinkled the pages with inspirational quotes from famous world figures, like Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein and Oscar Wilde. Furthering his artistic repertoire, Cone began drawing faces in 2008. Using Jean Cocteau’s rudimentary style as his inspirational springboard, he produced hundreds of drawings of Buddha and famous actors within a few years. It wasn’t until friends urged him to paint his drawings that Cone picked up a brush and “faceture” was born.
Upon purchasing his first easel, Cone began to paint large, 4×5 canvases “au pif” (by the seat of his pants). “I don’t have the formalities and the rules that so many artists have,” he explains. “That’s why I’m doing something this fun and unique.”
The application of bold acrylics in primary reds, yellows and blues, combined with his use of flat shapes and controlled lines, have granted him accolades like “creatively unique” and “Matissesque.”
Alongside several line drawings and small paintings, copies of “Femme” and eight of Cone’s large “facetures” will be available for purchase at the exhibit, with portions of the sales benefiting WHQR. Looking to the future, Cone sagely remarks that an artist never knows the true destiny of their work. With over 1,000 drawings on reserve and mankind’s constant desire for an emotional connection, one thing’s certain: He won’t be saving face.
Billy Cone Works
Photographs, drawings and paintings
Hanging through August 8th
MC Erny Gallery at WHQR
254 N. Front Street, Suite 300