Sunday, August 18, 1996
The brave, familiar art of C.F. Payne

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Wyoming, Ohio. Suburban Cincinnati. Great schools, some achingly beautiful old homes on big lots. Reasonably sized houses with carefully plotted flowers. Trees that have been there a long time. It's the place where Vine Street becomes Springfield Pike. Substantial. Solid. Quality.

This is where Chris Payne lives.

Not to drag the analogy past the point of endurance, but this seems like the right place for this artist. He calls himself an illustrator, but he must be a real artist because the Cincinnati Art Museum is having an exhibition of his work. It's Sept. 20 through Jan. 12, 1997.

Jean Feinberg, the museum's curator of contemporary art, is a nice person and has, I believe, come to like it here even though we are not New York. But local ties don't cut any ice with her when it comes to exhibition space. She insists on the best. And he is.

His regular gallery is the magazine rack, where his work has appeared on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. While I was snooping around in his tiny studio, an offer came in from Der Speigel, a German cross between Time and the National Enquirer. His paintings are in the collections of John Travolta and the late Malcolm Forbes. John Mellencamp owns one titled ''Woody Guthrie's Home Room.'' Bob Dylan is writing a paper. Bruce Springsteen is cheating off Dylan and Mellencamp is cheating off Springsteen.

Jean Feinberg calls it context. Chris Payne says he's just telling a story.

Once you have seen a C.F. Payne - that's his work name - you will recognize it on postage stamps and orange juice ads. He is better known for wickedly funny graphic sendups of everybody from Bill Clinton to David Letterman. I should think his subjects would be terrified. He sees everything they tell the world. And then some. It's honest and brave.

''His work is very sophisticated,'' Ms. Feinberg says. ''This is commentary.'' She lifts the paper cover off an illustration of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in straw boaters, wielding canes. It is, the art says clearly, the same old song and dance.

Art in a hurry

The portraits are commissioned by art-directors-in-a-hurry all over the world. His wife, Paula, has finally come to terms with the fact that when Time calls, her husband will simply disappear for 48 hours. There's a fax-orama, phone calls and finally the Federal-
Expressed art makes its way out of town. Modern electronics allow him to stay here, his home.

A graduate of Wyoming High School and Miami University, he works behind his house in a converted garage. Work clothes are khaki shorts, a white T-shirt and sneakers. His son, Trevor, 12, ambles in and talks. There's another son, Evan, 6.

Funny and thoughtful, Chris Payne is easy to like. Finally, I ask him if anybody ever tells him he, uh, resembles somebody else. (He looks like Bill Clinton, only with a better nose and worse hair.)

''Yes,'' he says, ''thank God it's not Ross Perot.'' His Ross Perot does not seem to be rendered with affection, but ''I don't think I'm ever mean.'' He says clients are forever telling him to ''make Dan Quayle look dumber.'' He heard Newt Gingrich was unhappy with the Time cover portraying him as Scrooge.

''All these guys should be big enough to take it,'' he says innocently. After all, he's just telling a story. He jokes that the difference between an illustrator and a fine artist is that the illustrator doesn't paint with his bodily fluids.

So, no kidding, is he an artist or not? An artist, of course, says the very picky Jean Feinberg. Furthermore, she says his art is ''first-rate, intellectually rich, with layers of meaning.'' He will be famous, really famous, someday, she predicts.

So, years from now people will be studying the oeuvre of one C.F. Payne to discover what we were all about. And our world could do a lot worse than to be judged on the view from a normal and lovely corner of the Midwest.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.