New York

Cynthia Carlson

C.U.N.Y. Graduate Center Mall

Cynthia Carlson’s works don’t always steal the show. But because of their hazardous boldness and other reasons—not solid run-of-the-mill ones—I consider her eccentric art more than fascinating. I am challenged by the pragmatic miracle of her productions, which seem to exclude any form of art phobia. Her work, which surely comes from, and expresses a love for, art, also integrates without paranoia a wide array of other visual material.

Carlson started as a painter, working in a mixture of patterning and painterliness. Her simultaneous use of fluid and bulky paint created vital surfaces, sumptuous in texture, color, paint and motif. Her next step, with a dramatized brave empiricism, was to use cookie frosting equipment for paint application. The paint in later paintings got too thick, too physically autonomous to remain a surface only. It is not the skin, but the deep flesh tending toward emancipation.

When Carlson left the road of abstract painting her resolution was also architectonic, in that she squeezed the paint directly onto the solid wall—like a relief-wallpaper. Though not alluding to actual architecture, she evokes instead a more conceptual idea of architecture, the home. The wallpapers shown recently are not only a leap from canvas to wall (in the formal style of Sol LeWitt: direct wall work, site specific) but also a true conceptual leap forcefully identifying with Dagwood and Blondie and Moon Mullins comic-strip living style.

This wallpaper work significantly occupies its place among an energetic (if yet critically unexplored) body of work by conceptual decorators, committed not just to patterning as decoration but to a new idea of art and decoration. Carlson’s recent Gingerbread House is conservative in a way the wallpaper is not, because it retreats into specific imagery via representational sculpture. It is a vulnerable piece. There has been an abundance of house references lately in art, from Charles Simonds’ miniature archeology to Gordon Matta-Clark’s anarchitecture to Joel Shapiro’s and Jennifer Bartlett’s work, where the image creeps out of basic geometry—a mere square and triangle—to push the collective unconscious toward the perception of “house.” Carlson’s house was made on the basis of a simple wish to do something three-dimensional and outdoors; her use of pastry tubes makes just as nice a connection with gingerbread as her rich painting patterns make with fairy-tale shingles—so freshly ad hoc is the desired unit, the gingerbread house.

This architecture of fairy-tale funk is covered with painted surfaces: stitches, framing devices, geometric patterns—all components familiar from her earlier work. The house changes the context for the painting; the painting clothes the house. The image of a gingerbread house is well known and is here consequently quite capable of subsuming the variety of painted surfaces into its functions (door jambs, chimney). The house is the epitome of petit bourgeois kitsch, a monster from the Swiss-Austrian yodel country.

The Gingerbread House is a visual pun so dreadfully coy that it proves Carlson’s integration of larger art concerns into her work, in this case the visual pop of literary/folk nursery tales—and respect is due for that. Her overt use of kitsch connects the work with the plaster guerrilla vernacular of the Watts Towers, and also conjures up a sweet-tooth post-Minimalism, candy-colored painterliness, and the fruity fruity Pop heritage of Oldenburg and Marjorie Strider. That’s enough for me; perhaps I could say more if I were 20 years younger.

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