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You can’t jump in these leaves: Christian Carson’s The Process.

Stronger Than Metaphor
By David Brickman

Christian Carson
Albany Center Galleries, through June 19

Christian Carson is a very intelligent painter—perhaps a bit too intelligent. His well-researched, referential works at Albany Center Galleries are sure to please the history-oriented viewer with their sly allusions to Bellini and Arcimboldo; but a gallery-goer hungry for passionate expression may come away unsatisfied.

Carson has an undergraduate degree in English from a school in the Midwest and a 1998 MFA from the University at Albany; he is devoted to poetry, both as writer and reader, a fact that is subtly evident in the paintings; and he is a careful and skilled technician with increasingly impressive control over his medium.

The eight paintings and six oil pastels on view in this solo show all date from 2002 to 2004, yet even in so short a span one can easily discern the improvement in Carson’s technique. Though never an end in themselves (well, almost never), painterly chops (or the lack thereof) can go a long way toward making or breaking an artist in terms of reaching the audience. Weak ideas well executed will never get beyond a certain point of success; equally, the best idea poorly done isn’t likely to go very far either.

Carson seems to have a few good ideas, and the better he paints, the better they look. His subject in this show is leaves. All but a couple of the works depict nearly nothing more than a compact pile of green leaves; several incorporate objects, mainly articles of clothing, apparently tossed into these piles; and the two that go beyond that incorporate neo-Renaissance landscapes as background.

Some of the pieces with the clothing were seen last year in a survey show of paintings at the Albany International Airport Gallery called Unplugged. In that group, the leaves are stylized, almost cartoonish, and the thoughts the paintings inspire are of the cute, inside-joke sort: “Hey, that’s a bra and panties, isn’t it?” or “Is that a shirtsleeve or a condom?” One of them (the “sleeves” one) is titled Religious Argument, making the point obvious enough, while others, the pastels among them, have less specific titles (Departure I and Departure II, for example, as well as a number of Untitleds).

As the work progresses, however, Carson recognizes that his more powerful meaning is inherent in the subject itself and his handling of it, rather than in forced metaphors. The oil pastels Head I and Head II present the leaf piles as a portrait subject; their naturalism has increased and, though he carefully avoids letting them actually look like faces, their individual personalities are emerging.

In the 2003 piece titled The Process, Carson has begun to make this realization pay off. In it, the leaves are piled high, bathed in a flattering warm light with a bright sky behind. They are fresh-looking enough that one might mistake them for a cluster of growing vines—kudzu or something—but there are several varieties of leaves all massed together, oak and maple and others, so you know they must be dead despite their green suppleness. Their individual shapes, as well as the negative spaces between and around them, are faithfully recorded, their surfaces attentively brushed on.

The Process is more than 4 feet by 5 feet, much larger than the earlier paintings, which gives the subject a satisfying monumentality. Next to it, about the same size, is the latest piece in the show—and it is also the strongest. Untitled presents a similar leaf pile as The Process, this time with a darker tone. Here, the leaves are again very carefully rendered, the curling gestures of the beginnings of their slow descent into dry crumbs meticulously captured.

With this last painting, Carson has made evident what his subject truly is: a reverence for life, and the consequent awareness of death. It is a theme worthy of any artist’s long attention; it will be interesting to see where he takes his exploration next.

Readers may recall that in the past I have criticized Albany Center Galleries for overstuffed installations—in Chris Carson’s case, the opposite is true. His installation is a bit too stark, allowing the white space of the gallery to nearly overwhelm the art; additionally, the title cards are placed annoyingly far from the works they describe.

Some viewers no doubt will enjoy the purity of this presentation (and, admittedly, they don’t have a reviewer’s need to find and write down the titles) but I consider it bad form for a gallery to require a person to walk several steps away from a painting just to learn its name and date. A solution for those presenters who insist on allowing the artworks such a healthy distance from their labels would be to assign numbers and then provide a printed list for visitors to carry around with them if they wish.

Peripheral Vision

Pat Hadfield: Works on Paper
Yates Gallery, through May 27

Naturalism is the theme of Pat Hadfield’s solo show at Siena College’s Yates Gallery. The exhibition is a showcase for drawing, the good, old- fashioned medium that too often remains hidden in sketchbooks and studio classes, rarely becoming an end in itself. Indeed, Hadfield’s artist statement points out that even these rather large, beautifully finished drawings are his own sketches for paintings—but the best of them also stand up as works of art on their own.

Part of the pleasure of the show is seeing the directness of charcoal on paper wielded with an experienced hand; it is also nice to join Hadfield in his fascination with simple, natural things, especially the ammonites (ancient spiral-shaped creatures preserved as jewel-like fossils) that are the centerpiece of the show.

Hadfield is more a teacher than an exhibiting artist (he works full time at a Rhode Island prep school, and has been a summer instructor since 1989 at Skidmore College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree) and this is apparent in the unpretentious freshness of his work. By simply saying, “See what I found!”—and then drawing it in the solid way he wishes his students to draw—he sets an example worth following.

—David Brickman

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