blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts

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back RICHARD CARYLON | Selected Work From Reynolds Gallery

A Network of Possibilities
by Ashley Kistler

The recent experience of reviewing the legion of works Richard Carlyon made in many different media over half a century was even more staggering than I remembered a decade ago, when planning his 2009 retrospective. The challenge of winnowing selections to a manageable number for a much smaller exhibition, while attempting to retain a sense of his diverse artistic output and the perennial concepts that guided him through periods of creative transition, certainly amplified the magnitude of the task at hand. What once again comes across most powerfully, however, is the “network of possibilities” that propelled Carlyon’s agile thinking, restless curiosity, and wide-ranging experimentation over the course of his long career. This focus of his artistic inquiry, included as one of multiple entries in two of the artist’s statements (1998, 2002),* reflects a generous, yet acutely honed recognition of the limitless potential to be gleaned from even the most mundane of encounters, predicated on a singular kind of attentiveness. Indeed, Carlyon was a person who paid attention to things, as he liked to think of himself; and among those things he heeded and collected as artistic fodder are many that would easily escape our notice or readily be discarded.

Making use of the margins of things, literally, became one way Carlyon multiplied the possibilities and plotted a path to the unexpected. Rather than completely trashing hundreds of pages of faculty-meeting agendas unearthed when cleaning out his office after 40 years of teaching, Carlyon instead cut out and salvaged the marginal doodles and rhythmic marks he idly applied to each sheet—evidence of the tedium of those past moments. When he began to systematically incorporate these trifling gestures into his drawings during the mid-1990s, along with a vast array of other found materials and ephemera discovered in the world at large, Carlyon transformed them into efficacious vehicles of exploration, giving credence to his observation that “some things gain in existence by being rendered” (2002), or re-rendered as the case may be.

The sweeping flurry of marks, letters, and symbols seen in SEVEN OF EIGHT: gaining. Whiteness (1998) reprises the elements of a collage assembled 15 years earlier, as do the other seven drawings in this series, as if Carlyon is rehearsing and refining his original “score,” as each of his prototypal collages is partly titled. Like the word “network” itself, the character of this constantly evolving topography of interconnections, shaped as much by chance and improvisation as by choice and selectivity, recalls his comment from a 2003 conversation, “Everything is already related; there’s nothing missing.” Consequently, he continued, attention can be focused on other, richer possibilities brought to bear on our consciousness by such questions as: What is vital? Where does this image carry the imagination? What kind of commentary is made on drawing and art; on movement, light, space, color, and gesture; on human marking systems and perception?

The works in this exhibition cover a wide chronological range, beginning with a group of drawings from the 1960s and early 70s that reveals Carlyon’s gradual distillation of quotidian items and observations into simplified components, indicative of his subsequent development of an abstract vocabulary often anchored in everyday experience. A number of these pieces are on public view for the first time; others haven’t been seen in well over a generation, including three monumental paintings from the mid-1970s, last shown in 1979 at the VCU School of the Arts’ former Anderson Gallery. Newly cleaned and conserved, these paintings freshly reinforce Carlyon’s assertion that each canvas has its own specific “face,” or singular handmade surface, a characterization reflective not only of his painstaking approach to the medium, but also of his desire to establish a particular kind of enveloping visual engagement with the viewer. He regarded the intuitive process of making a painting as one fraught with “poetic uncertainty,” reliant on the deepest engagement of experience and feeling, and at the time stated, “I find painting the best way to tie myself to the world” (1975).

Trapeze: In Memorium José Puig (1974) is likely the earliest of the large, geometrically-structured abstract canvases that Carlyon continued to paint through 1975, retaining as it does visible brushwork and the subtle impression of receding space, rendered more fully, for example, in the domestic environment of a 1961 untitled drawing made soon after the artist and Eleanor Rufty were married and sharing their first Richmond home on Grove Avenue. A minimalist scaffold of vertical and horizontal bands lends structure to a beautifully variegated surface of light blues, greens, and grays, built up over multiple layers of translucent paint to ethereal effect. While referential images were anathema to Carlyon as his paintings evolved, this configuration nevertheless suggests the rectilinear apparatus of the work’s title and also evokes, at least for this viewer, an inscrutable threshold and the indeterminate space that lies beyond, recalling the untimely death of a respected colleague after whom the painting is also named.

Passage to India (1975), an especially vibrant example from this prolific period, reveals Carlyon’s ongoing iteration of spare compositional schemes delineated by rectilinear bands of contrasting colors and his refinement of a dense, flattened surface, achieved through the accumulation of countless controlled brush marks in layers of subtly-shifting hues of the same color—a process nimbly enacted by the artist in the video Red Again (1989). Not long thereafter, Carlyon began joining two canvases of different sizes to create a single work, as seen in Slate #2 (1976), a gorgeous painting rendered in the deepest of midnight blues. More elaborate polyptychs soon materialized. His exploration of geometric abstraction also grew to encompass multi-canvas ensembles, sequenced to create mesmerizing, motion-filled networks of interconnected lines. More daringly in the Signal Series, he arranged discrete, relatively narrow rectangular panels into rhythmic, asymmetrical compositions, dedicating each one to a different choreographer. Featured here is the wonderfully poised Signal IX (Tri-Splice for Yvonne Rainer) (1983), arguably the most dynamic painting in the group, which reappears in miniature in Portrait of an Imaginary Wall (1998) along with its companions.

Carlyon was an artist exceedingly adept at successfully accommodating contradictory modes of operation. Though the foregoing comments indicate the various ways he expanded the parameters of abstract painting as he developed it, his engagement with the medium was equally dependent on reduction, or simplification, redolent of modernism’s self-referential tendencies. Frequently working in a serial format, he purposely limited the formal components of each of his investigations to a few basic, often austere options with which he generated a stimulating array of variations on a theme. While the paintings included in this exhibition represent specific series or other similarly-focused inquiries bent on probing the adaptability of geometric form and the effects of subtle, at times barely perceptible gradations of value and tonality, each canvas offers a unique, hard-won, and delectable experience for the viewer that deftly underscores the infinite possibilities to be discovered with even the most minimal of means.

In the 2003 conversation referenced earlier, Carlyon also noted, “As I’ve gotten older, I like definitions that aren’t fixed but expand things. It’s like John Cage saying he’s interested in sound, which could include everything from noise to silence to musical sounds to the sounds of nature, etc.” The idea of drawing as a form of graphic notation came to mind as Carlyon prepared a lecture on the topic of drawing, and offered just this kind of open-ended flexibility, enabling him to resume drawing in the mid-1990s after he had abandoned it for a decade. This new perspective also allowed him to access as credible source material the type of imagery, for instance, layered in two of his HAND-ME-DOWN collages (1981)—wonderfully cacophonous medleys of newspaper headlines and photographs, schematic illustrations, cartoons, and images of hands, incorporated as paper cutouts or as painted impressions of the palm, which resurface as appropriated sign-language symbols in his late drawings. By reengaging a storehouse of ephemera to make these works, meticulously rendered in ink on parchment, vellum, or Mylar, Carlyon once again gleefully tied himself to the world and reinstated his receptivity to the prospect of its unforeseen possibilities.

Carlyon gave special attention to the columns of newspaper text appearing in his collages, striking through individual letters, words, and entire lines. Perhaps he intended this presumably humorous act of redaction as a wry comment on media reportage and the absurd content of certain headlines, though his obscuring marks also accrue extra resonance in our own era of alternative facts. This early interaction with found text anticipates the primary role that words and their remnants play as images in his drawings from 1998 onwards, often with mischievous results; it also manifests his enduring interest in constructing a visual conversation in which gaps, overlaps, distortions, reversals, diversions, and other serendipitous twists and turns, amplified by his application of chance procedures, disrupt ingrained assumptions on the part of maker and viewer, taking the imagination elsewhere. When Carlyon employed this approach to text in his final paintings, inserting partially camouflaged and fragmented words, as seen in the metallic-silver band running below the dark matte-gray horizontal field of while passing. Their (2001), he enlisted as part of the conversation even the physical movements of the viewer, who must maneuver around his expansive canvas to decipher its visual puzzle.

That Carlyon regarded the viewer’s movement as an integral part of the work seems like a natural aspect of his creativity as a visual artist, given his early training as a dancer and choreographer. In the 1950s, he studied the Martha Graham technique, surely the most demanding of modern-dance styles; years later, after studying her rehearsal films at the Graham Foundation in New York and plotting the paths of her dancers, he based a group of 19 drawings on her choreographic patterns—yet another instance of graphic notation. As indicated above, Carlyon also drew major inspiration from the working methods of pioneering composer John Cage, whom he first met in the 1960s. Carlyon’s adoption of Cagean chance procedures, at once fixed and flexible, was perhaps most useful to him as a means of bypassing his own aesthetic proclivities and thereby making ample room for the unexpected; he delighted in a process whose outcome was unpredictable. As Carlyon absorbed these lessons, he remained focused on a central objective: “to make the known unknown so that the known can be known anew” (undated). With rigor, integrity, and brilliance, his “structured play” (2002), as he described his artmaking, invariably opened up a network of possibilities for both the artist and his audience.  

Ashley Kistler has served as director of the Anderson Gallery, curator of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, and associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. She has edited and/or authored the books Anderson Gallery: 45 Years of Art on the Edge and Nancy Blum: Drawing, Sculpture, and Public Works. She curated Richard Carylon’s exhibition A Network of Possibilities at the Reynolds Gallery in 2018.

* Quotations with dates attributed to the artist derive from his unpublished artist’s statements, on file in Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. Other quotations attributed to Carlyon derive from my conversation with him on February 18, 2003; portions of this conversation appear in “Drawing (and Dancing) with Richard Carlyon” in Blackbird v4n2, fall 2005.

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