blackbird spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


RICHARD CARLYON  |  Selected Work

On Carlyon: Notes by Wesley Gibson

1. Carlyon’s paintings are often about painting. At a glance, they seem to be about almost nothing. A black stripe, say, on a white canvas. But far from being minimal, they are actually maximal. There’s quite a lot of drama in the way that they are painted. And that, of course, is the point. They are meant to dawn on you. They are about perception, about your perception. They are meant to rivet you into a moment, into the moment of your perception. They are, I think, objects meant to inspire moments of serene contemplation. They are a counterpoint to the way hundreds, if not thousands, of images flash by us every day. I was once at the movies with a friend, and we were watching a trailer. Thirty, forty images flickered by us in about sixty seconds, and when it was over he leaned over to me and whispered, “A person from the seventeenth century would have fainted by now.”

2. I was once in Carlyon’s studio, and there were all these drawing lying around, pencil on beautiful paper. They appeared to be drawings of, perhaps, galaxies à la Vijay Celmins, and so I said, “What are these?” And Carlyon said, “They’re drawings of dust?” And I said, “How do you draw dust?” And he said, “You lay the paper out for a long time and you let the dust accumulate and then you draw whatever’s there.” Microcosm as macrocosm. The dust in the universe. The universe in the dust.

3. I have a Carlyon. Six silver panels with tiny rectangles cut into their middles with little vials tucked into the rectangles. What I love about this work is the reaction of other people, which has an almost peculiar sameness. It is an eye-catching work: elegant, austere, a glittering metallic sheen. You can’t help but look at it, and so people always do. And after a little while they almost always say something like, “What’s with the vials?” And I always say, “They’re the six body fluids.” And again, it’s almost uncanny the way they always say, as if we had been scripted, “What are the six body fluids?” And I list them: blood, semen, mucus, spit, tears, sweat. And then they study the painting even harder, even more, and you can see that they have been recalled to the fact of their own bodies. It’s an extraordinary moment. Minimal means. Maximum effects.

4. Carlyon has a video of nothing but movie dissolves, one image fading and blooming into another. It has always looked to me like some dreamer’s version of the birth of the universe.

5. I think if someone were to ask me to describe Carlyon, I would say, “He is passionately attentive.”

6. When Carlyon uses images in his work, they are often images drawn from the media or images several times removed from their original source. It’s hard not to think of those images as a critique or at the very least a counterpoint to the more object-like paintings. When I look at any of Carlyon’s work, I feel like I am being asked to participate in it. I feel like my imagination is being asked to be active. When I’m watching a trailer at a movie, thirty, forty images in sixty seconds, I feel as though I am being acted upon. I am passive. The imagination, I think, mostly shuts down out of sheer necessity. A person from the Renaissance would have fainted by now.

7. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that Carlyon used to begin a course in visual thinking by showing a picture of the White House and saying, “This is not the capital of the United States.” Then he would show a picture of the Cinderella castle at Disneyland and say, “This is.”

8. I once saw a man accepting an award and he said, “I would like to thank anyone, anywhere, who is trying to make anything.” For some reason I remember thinking of Carlyon.

9. When I think of the breadth, the depth, the variety of strategies, the seriousness, the wit, the care, the thoughtfulness, the endless curiosity, the ongoing exploration, the refusal of any easiness, the dignity and risk of trusting your audience’s intelligence that this body of work embraces, I am all but astonished by it. In life we need models, we need standards. This is the model. This is the standard.

10. I still remember the show that inspired me to write about Carlyon’s work. In it there was an image culled from a magazine, there were huge, mostly white paintings bolted to the walls, there were multiple images of what seemed to be the artist but also seemed to be of some vaguely threatening Middle Eastern looking man (strangely prescient, that seems now) and I remember thinking, almost in anger, the way you sometimes are when you don’t understand something, what the hell is this? I mean, what on earth do any of these things have to do with one another? But I stayed because the effect of the whole was compelling. And then, slowly, that dawning I spoke of earlier, I got it, or I got my version of it anyway. I remember thinking, I see. This is one way of seeing. And this is another. And this, again, is yet another. Here my attention is being drawn toward how my perception is being manipulated. And here, look at the nuance of texture and shading in what at first seemed like a mostly white painting. That’s another way of seeing. The pieces were in conversation with one another, and I had been included in the conversation, and my anger slowly dissolved and bloomed, the way Carlyon’s dissolves fade and bloom in that gorgeous video, into a kind of exhilaration. When I left the gallery, I looked at things differently all afternoon, billboards and crumbling white stucco walls and some torn flyer for some band stapled to a telephone pole. I thought about them differently. It was as if the artist had performed, from a great distance, some radical yet subtle transplantation of the eye that lingers to this day.  

Wesley Gibson is the author of You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival (Little, Brown, 2004), and Shelter, a novel (Harmony Books/Random House, 1992). His stories have been published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, New Virginia Review, and the anthology Men On Men: Best New Gay Fiction 5 (Plume, 1994), among others. He has been the recipient of a Virginia Commission for the Arts grant in fiction and a New York Foundation of the Arts grant in nonfiction. He won the Mississippi Review Prize for fiction in 2000. In addition, he writes art and book reviews. Gibson has taught writing at Brown University, the University of Richmond, and Virginia Commonwealth University.