blackbird spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


RICHARD CARLYON  |  Selected Work

Commentary by Howard Risatti

With all its hype, today’s art world makes it easy for artists to look relevant by simply showcasing art’s latest technical means while slyly avoiding its many intellectual challenges. As this exhibition shows, Richard Carlyon clearly is not one of those artists. His paintings and drawings in this exhibition, which span a period from the mid-eighties to the present, are as serious in intent as they are refined in their techniques. Done more or less in series, they have a sense of give and take about them, of an almost musical point and counterpoint, if you like, that animates the visual and intellectual space around and between them.


This is immediately evident of the paintings. Though the oldest of the works in the exhibition, they strike me as very Modern in their freshness and their simplicity. So much so that at first glance they appear rather emblematic; that is to say, they appear to be images meant to be taken in by the eye as simple, unitary wholes. Their color schemes and compositional formats, mostly squares and rectangles, create this impression. But it is only an impression. To the attentive viewer it immediately becomes apparent these paintings are very complex entities whose appearance continually shifts and changes as one moves about the gallery.
This happens, in part, because the size of the paintings and that of their internal elements is carefully scaled to that of the human body. So, for example, as one moves closer to a work certain shapes come forward to confront the viewer in a “body-to-body” relationship while others recede gently into the ground. Color accentuates this experience, sometimes occurring as sharp contrasts that boldly declare form and at other times as ethereal shifts in hue that only hint at form’s presence. Moreover, the way color holds the surface in even applications of paint (one of the works has 183 coats) creates a sense of what the artist calls “pure air.” To my eye a kind of transcendental light of evening seems to emanate through this “pure air,” a light that is more urban than rural, but nonetheless quietly spiritual.


The drawings, which were completed in the last two years, signal a change in direction because they exhibit technical strategies now considered more Postmodern than Modern. They reiterate from drawing to drawing abstract material (gestural marks and linear diagram elements) as well as appropriated imagery in the form of sign-language symbols (hands, heads, and phonic letters). Apparently lifted verbatim from their sources so as to retain their original stylistic features, these elements have been subjected to various chance operations much in the manner of composer John Cage (whom the artist met years ago).


With chance used to determine the positions and sequencing of material in the drawings, we see a repetition or layering of an image here, a repositioning or cropping of an entire section there. The result is a series of ideogram or rebus-like works whose struggle at silent speech tantalizingly insinuates some kind of unfolding narrative, something that unconsciously nudges the viewer onward from drawing to drawing in search of a key, of some element that will make all clear. And in this impulse to discover, we come full circle to where we began with the paintings. For while the artist offers no easy, simple formula that will unravel the artistic propositions he puts before us, our search leads us to carefully and thoughtfully attend to the work’s world, to see its world as a microcosm of our own.

In the end, this is the door to understanding the artist opens for us. And in doing so, he reveals his own sensibilities as an artist continually alert to new ideas and possibilities, but also as an artist steadfast in the belief that art, in the vast metaphorical possibilities it offers to any viewer willing to accept its challenges, is still a genuinely humanistic endeavor.

Howard Risatti
Richmond, October 2005