Jo Anne Carson

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

Jo Anne Carson’s transition from shaped abstract paintings in the late 70s to figurative, three-dimensional, constructed paintings in the early ’80s was a dramatic leap for the artist—about as dramatic a change as that undergone in her present body of work. The catalyst for the current transformation would seem to have been the time Carson spent in Italy, most of 1984, on a Prix de Rome. Unfortunately, the flattened and disappointingly “illustrative” works that have resulted from her year abroad raise some disturbing questions, Why has Carson retreated from daring, evocative sculptural spoofs of Modernist schools to produce these banal compendiums of classic art history? Was she so intimidated in the presence of the Italian Renaissance and Mannerist masterpieces that she felt compelled to produce bad imitations of them? Carson left the States a tough, talented, and witty commentator on 20th-century Modernism and returned as a convert to classical painting motifs that appear, at least at this stage, more appropriate for the covers of occult or science-fantasy paperbacks than for the walls of a museum.

The four large works in this show reflect the range of Carson’s evolving style. The earliest, Night Watch, 1984, represents her former approach in all its ostentatious power. Massive embedded forms protrude from the multileveled surface: a glassless four-paned window frame; the front veneer of a chest of drawers; a big, thick-edged picture frame; and a series of semicircular tabletops complete with legs, collapsing in tiers, and with fake fruit attached. Superimposed across this jumble of objects, nearly camouflaging them, is a rambling surface of collage and painted images which have little or nothing to do with the underlying objects: masks; a charging red bull; striped and checkered goblets spilling off a table; and a barrage of newspaper logos and printed words. Occasionally a swatch of actual patterned fabric attached to the surface continues into the picture plane as a painted image. The dizzying effect is kaleidoscopic—like a gigantic pop-up version of a cubist painting. References to Modernist styles (Picasso’s Cubism, Kurt Schwitters’ collage, Pattern and Decoration work) are more than just cited, they are brought to life in curious and wonderful ways. The tabletops, for example, physically repeat themselves several times, evoking the way a Cubist rendering of an object might repeat aspects of it to simulate different viewpoints, or the way Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, represents movement. If the painting technique seems a little crude here, it matters little, for the overall conception is so stunning, the ability to pull off visual puns so convincing, that one stands awed before Carson’s works in this vein.

The remaining three paintings in the exhibit, executed in Rome, reveal an attempt to improve painterly technique, but apparently at the expense of compositional ambition. Two paintings still contain three-dimensional elements camouflaged beneath painted surfaces, but they are physically shallower than the earlier works, and the objects fail to effect any significant commentary. They are merely devices without secondary meanings. One painting, The East Wind, 1984, is flat in a conventional way. In all three works Carson concentrates on creating illusory, albeit surrealistic, landscapes or scenes, pulling in quotes from art ranging from Egyptian and medieval to Renaissance and Modernist. In essence, she has switched from a first-person “showing” of post-Modernism in action to a third-person “telling” of it in a secondhand, narrative manner. Her belabored, architectonic surfaces once held the promise of discovery and surprise; now her painted imagery dominates, and it has become labored, heavy-handed, and inconsequentially decorative.

I sympathize with Carson’s need to pursue the post-Modernist impulse ad infinitum into art history, and to master the techniques necessary to comment upon them. But until such commentary can transcend mere quotation of historical clichés, I would prefer to remember her brilliant and bombastic creations from the period 1981 through 1983.

Michael Bonesteel