cant jump in these leaves: Christian Carsons
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
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.
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
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.
Hadfield: Works on Paper
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.