Macalester-Groveland artist Mark Cosimini is framing the inequities in society in a series of paintings he groups under the headings “Social Landscapes” and “Haves and Have Nots.” The paintings put a face on poverty and render the stark contrasts between the more and the less fortunate among us.

Cosimini began painting full time after retiring from a 30-year career as a public defender in Hennepin County. He grew up in Saint Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, completed a double major in studio art and political science at the University of Minnesota and earned his law degree at the former William Mitchell College of Law.

Mark Cosimini artist
Artist Mark Cosimini and his oil painting, “Chestnut Street Sunday Afternoon.” Photo by Brad Stauffer

“My wife passed away in 2010,” he said. “We’d met in law school. I worked for another year or so after she died and finally decided it was time for a change. I thought I’d restart my life as if I never went to law school and just kept painting after college. It’s like having a job where every day is a good day.

“Practicing law as a public defender was a very fulfilling but stressful life,” Cosimini said. “I retired and decided to return to my original love—painting. I made room in my basement. I had tubes of paint I kept from college back in the ’70s. It was amazing; they were still good.”

Cosimini admires the 19th century Ash Can School in which artists portrayed scenes of daily life in New York City. Sometimes known as the Apostles of Ugliness, the artists of the Ash Can School were intent on painting scenes of what society’s more fortunate members were inclined to ignore. “They painted real people, urban society,” Cosimini said. “I love their style. It’s a very direct approach.”

Cosimini’s portfolio includes oil and acrylic still lifes, florals, landscapes and portraits. He joined the AZ Gallery in downtown Saint Paul, and has been a part of juried exhibits and solo shows across the Twin Cities, including the Summit Avenue Artisan Festival and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ virtual Foot in the Door exhibit.

Cosimini described his Social Landscapes as a natural extension of his work as a public defender. “For most of my working life, I was fortunate to be able to work with the poor and less fortunate,” he said. “In those years, I witnessed daily the inequities in society. It only seemed natural to portray that in my paintings.

“In 2016, I was in New York and started taking photos of people on the street asking for money. The first social landscape I painted was based on an interesting fellow I saw during that visit. That gentleman was in three or four paintings I completed in the following two years. After I returned home, I started taking photos of homeless people here and anywhere I traveled.

Framing the inequities in society

“I work from photos,” he said. “They’re all candid, not posed. Many of my photos are taken when I’m a passenger in a car. I don’t really talk with the people I photograph, but if I’m on foot I’ll greet them, give them some money.

“There are so many disturbing things about the landscape,” Cosimini said. “How can there be such poverty and wealth so close to each other? Urban areas are crowded with the homeless, while in outlying areas one wouldn’t know this population existed. Large cities are divided into regions of the homeless surrounded by prosperous commercial communities. How as a society can we accept this?”

Cosimini’s series of Social Landscapes includes paintings set in Saint Paul, New York and Chicago. Among the Saint Paul group is “Shepard Road Sunday Morning,” a painting drawn from his weekly excursions to visit his brother on the East Side.

“Landscape painting may be defined as the depiction of nature, but it’s much more,” Cosimini said. “Landscapes have progressed from serving as the background for religious and historical paintings to being a genre in themselves. By the 19th century, landscapes were part of the Romantic movement in art, representing the glory of nature and the struggles of man against the forces of nature. By the 20th century, landscapes had grown to include man’s struggles in urban and industrial settings.”

Cosimini admires the 19th century Ash Can School in which artists portrayed scenes of daily life in New York City. Sometimes known as the Apostles of Ugliness, the artists of the Ash Can School were intent on painting scenes of what society’s more fortunate members were inclined to ignore. “They painted real people, urban society,” Cosimini said. “I love their style. It’s a very direct approach.”

homeless
Cosimini’s painting, “Homeless Please Help.”

Cosimini hopes his Social Landscapes will move the plight of the homeless and underserved to the forefront. A similar intent is behind his Haves and Have Nots paintings. “The first painting in this series takes a composition by the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau and substitutes palaces with skyscrapers and the homeless in place of the adoring masses,” he said. “My next paintings will be still lifes showing the contrasts­ between a rose and a dandelion or a gold chalice and a tin can.

“These series of paintings come down from the Ash Can School, where they said, ‘Hey, there are a bunch of people hurting out there and we’re going to put a frame around it, put it in a museum and have people look at this.’ I don’t purport that anything will change immediately, but I hope my paintings make people think twice.

“Paintings can be enjoyed on so many levels,” Cosimini said, “the composition, the colors, the technique, the subject matter. Me slapping some paint on a canvas will have little or no effect on the world around us. I just hope someone will look at my work and think, ‘Hmmm, something’s not right.’ And hopefully they aren’t talking about my technique.”

—Anne Murphy

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