Cosmo Joe returns to Madison for the Memorial Day weekend. Who? That would have been my reaction, too, until two weeks ago. Climbing the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art stairs to see its "Return to Function" exhibit, I glanced out the window and noticed art of a different kind altogether: performance painting.
That's how Andy "Cosmo Joe" Watkins describes what he does. A native of Milwaukee, the Appleton artist has toured his painting performances from L.A. to New York but favors Madison and sets up several times a year on State Street to feed on its vibe.
His traveling studio is a tarp he spreads on the sidewalk to catch any mess he might make. His medium is spray paint. He sets up an impressive arsenal of cans, each containing a different color. Donning an air-filter mask to cut down on overexposure to fumes, he wields these cans with dexterity and imagination, layering and dabbing at paint, often employing stencils or stripping away specific layers of paint with fine tools to produce wondrous skyscapes involving planets and stars -- sometimes juxtaposing them with pyramids, cities or other subjects.
MMOCA's staircase landing afforded an aerial perspective on Cosmo Joe's painting performance two weeks ago. His technique is suited to drawing a crowd. Within a matter of minutes after laying out a fresh sheet of heavy-duty paper and picking up the first can of spray paint, he has produced a finished work of art as more people gather to watch. This was the weekend of Cars on State, with dozens of vintage cars lining State Street. Cosmo Joe nevertheless stopped a steady parade of passersby in their tracks to watch him work. Some were impressed enough to purchase a Cosmo Joe original, fresh off the tarp and out of his imagination.
Watkins says his appearance two weeks ago on the 200 block of State Street was not typical: He is more often found in the vicinity of State Street's 500 block, but was displaced that weekend by construction. From Friday through Monday of the coming holiday weekend, he hopes to be back on or near the 500 block. If not, he says he'll find some other block of State Street on which to mount his painting performances. And he plans to return to Madison at least two more times this summer, during the Art Fair on the Square and Maxwell Street Days, both in July.