Art beat // Alone in a crowd

Clinton Rost paints café life

FULTON — Clinton Rost is a connoisseur of the city’s independent coffee shops, but not the kind who cares much whether the coffee drips through a filter or gets sucked through a Japanese-made siphon.

Rost doesn’t even drink coffee anymore since quitting a six-cups-a-day habit over a year ago. No, he’s more concerned with a café’s ambiance: the quality of light, the artful arrangement of mismatched furniture and the mix of college students, freelancers and late-rising service industry folks who fill the seats during the day.

It’s the people who interest him the most, particularly the ones who show up alone, day after day, to reclaim a favorite seat and work or read or daydream. When they appear in his paintings for “Spy House,” a show of recent work at Gallery 360, they are absorbed in a book or the glow of a laptop, but hardly ever interacting with one another.

“We go to coffee shops to be alone in a crowd,” said Rost in between sips of green tea at his South Minneapolis apartment, which doubles as his studio. He should know: as a freelance web developer he spends hours working in places like Butter Bakery Café and Bob’s Java Hut.

But for Rost there’s no place like the original Spyhouse Coffeeshop on Nicollet Avenue, a favorite haunt since his student days at the nearby Minneapolis College of Art and Design, from which he graduated in 2004. He’s been a regular at Spyhouse since shortly after the café opened in 2000, converting a corner storefront he recalls as previously housing “a really crappy, old grocery store that nobody went to.”

Rost’s show at Gallery 360 is called “Spy House” not just because many of the paintings were inspired by his favorite coffee shop. The space inserted between the two words hints at a voyeuristic quality in the paintings, the sense that the subjects are being viewed surreptitiously from across the room.

“I’m always wondering what they’re doing,” he said.

We do, too, since Rost typically offers just the barest hint of an expression. In “You Again,” a woman’s guarded look is, upon closer inspection, an illusion, the mind completing Rost’s faint brushstrokes.

Rost began sketching regularly at Spyhouse while still a student and is no stranger to being caught in the act of observing. (Mostly, the people who caught him were “really cool about it,” he said. “Especially if they’re in it, they definitely want to see.”)

He grew bolder over time, eventually showing up to Spyhouse with a full painting kit. Made out of wood and about the size and shape of a briefcase, it was filled with half-used tubes of oil paints and a few blank panels when Rost found it in a corner of his apartment and opened it up. The Mac logo he painted on the lid helped it blend in with all the laptops.

Rost now works mostly from photo references to better capture colors and the fleeting effects of light. An iPhone allows him to shoot pictures without drawing too much attention; it looks like he’s checking his e-mail.

He prefers early morning and evening scenes, when the angle of the sun makes for the most dramatic effects of light. His paintings can be suffused with a gentle glow, but more often light streaks across a room, cut into sharp-angled trapezoids by the frames of the café’s tall windows. A single horizontal brushstroke of white paint perfectly describes sunlight glinting off a table corner.

But what of the indie rock soundtrack, the chatting, the whoosh of the espresso machine? There’s none of that here.

Rost’s paintings focus intently on the stillness and solitude of their subjects, a Minneapolis update of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks at the Diner.” They may be regulars surrounded by other regulars, but to each other they’re all just what Rost called “familiar strangers.”

“They’re living their lives, and this is just a slice of it,” he said.

One young woman with dark, cropped hair reappears in several of Rost’s paintings. He recalled approaching her one day as she sat in the coffee shop, and asking if she’d mind if he put her in a painting.

He asked her name, and the familiar stranger reminded him they’d had the same conversation before.

Go see it
“Spy House” runs through Feb. 27 at Gallery 360, 3011 W. 50th St. 925-2400.