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If only you could see the color: Robert Cartmell’s Still Life with Hammer.

Play’s the Thing
By David Brickman

Robert Cartmell: Still-Lifes and the Garden of Eden
Firlefanz Gallery, through Oct. 9

It’s not often you get to see a show where the overwhelming sensation is of just how much the artist enjoys his work, but that’s exactly the case with the Firlefanz exhibition Still-Lifes and the Garden of Eden, featuring about 30 paintings and drawings by Robert Cartmell.

Cartmell is professor emeritus of art at the University at Albany, where he has taught since 1971, but his work hasn’t gotten a whole lot of regular exposure around here, so this is a welcome chance to catch up with him. And catch up you must, for two reasons: As evidenced by the freshness of this very recent work, Cartmell is by no means slowing down; and the show ends in just a few days.

Though Firlefanz is a small space and many of the paintings are pretty large, it is nevertheless a comfortable fit. Adding to the rightness of this choice of venue for Cartmell is the almost ridiculous (or maybe sublime) compatibility of the gallery’s decidedly yellow walls with the painter’s favored palette. In a couple of instances the wall and the painting nearly become one—a happy result for the relaxed Cartmell, though some more ego-driven creators might not be so amenable.

But don’t think that means you won’t be challenged by this presentation. Yes, it is full of joy and comfort and simple celebration; but it is also pushing boundaries, whether with color combinations or perspectival trickery or with sudden shifts in style and subject matter. Perhaps the most consistent element in all the work is a sense of play—as represented by the artist’s famous passion for rollercoasters (notably almost absent in these works) and carousels, as well as his freedom with the media of pencil and paint.

In the drawings, that freedom is manifested in looping lines, energetic scribbles, childlike figures and ripped-from-the-sketchbook pages. Many of the drawings are very small, and most of them have figures mounted on horses; colored-pencil pigmentation adds to the carnival atmosphere and the feeling of youthful abandon in their making.

But the real fun begins when Cartmell picks up a brush. Whereas some painters are daunted by the canvas, and need to think a lot and struggle a lot to get a painting made, Cartmell seems to just dive in and paint what he feels. Not that this is some form of art therapy—there’s also great intelligence behind the works—but that he doesn’t worry the subject like a bone, or invest it with portent like a manifesto.

So, it doesn’t really matter that the subject is fruit and flowers and furniture and musical instruments and maybe a hand tool or two; what matters is the color and composition and texture and scale and geometry—and did I say color? The color, the color—Cartmell adores color. The language of color, and its emotions, these are perhaps the artist’s true subject, and he engages with it fully. It’s as though the shapes of apples and petals are just a place to put those juicy colors.

Look at a Cartmell painting and notice how he selects a palette to work with. There’s Musician’s Table, with its fleshy pink, lemon yellow, olive green and blood red; then Orange & Yellow Flowers, in which orchid blue, deep green and brick red oppose and embrace the brighter colors of the title. Some of the more complicated pieces include many more colors, but also tend to contain them more into areas of flat geometry, as in the Matisse-like Artist’s Studio IV or the somewhat Cezanne-inspired Still Life with Hammer.

Throughout, Cartmell applies his consummate drawing skills as well, often outlining and accenting in pure black. This helps the paintings to jump out and grab you, as apparently has happened in particular to a few gallery visitors who have paid the artist the ultimate compliment by buying them for serious prices—not an insignificant fact considering Albany’s sketchy history as an art market, and very good news indeed for the fledgling Firlefanz.


Loop Sanctuary:
Recurring Dreams

Rebecca Schoonmaker:
18 Infinite Idiosyncrasies

Chapel + Cultural Center , through Nov. 22

Surrealism is the theme of the second Loop Sanctuary exhibition curated by musician Sara Ayers. Three artists make up this selection, which is dominated by the potent work of painter Sergio Sericolo, who has apparently been bitten by the digital bug. His brightly colored, computer-generated collages make visual puns of patterns derived from scientific imagery, and honor the source material with their sense of grand experiment.

A large cycle of hand-tinted photographs by Robert Gullie fills the gallery’s hallway space. Here, he has focused his attentions on a man-woman-babydoll, with predictably bizarre results. Two figurative sculptures by Dana Rudolph are also included, one of which doubles as a fountain. Though they aim for a spiritual effect, they struck me as too kitschy to be taken seriously.

One of two summer exhibitions at the Chapel has been held over—a good decision, as Rebecca Schoonmaker’s collection of paintings on panels in the gallery’s lounge is a show deserving of continued attention. Schoonmaker creates deftly patterned swirls of colorful marks in the manner of the great Yayoi Kusama, successfully evoking the idiosyncratic infinitude of the show’s title. A worthy effort by a young artist to watch.

The Loop Sanctuary exhibition will conclude with Ambient Night at the Chapel, a musical event in which Ayers and others will perform at 8:30 PM on Saturday, Nov. 20.

—David Brickman

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