Janet Carkeek

State of Illinois Art Gallery

Janet Carkeek works in ink and pastel on commercial plywood, augmenting and drawing out the natural rhythmic variegation of the grain. There is a kind of benign dignity to this pursuit, a Joyce Kilmer–like complicity with arboreal being; time has etched these patterns into the fiber of the wood, and Carkeek’s practice patiently releases them. Her palette is so discreetly muted, so modest and harmonious, that it never overwhelms nature’s consummate artisanship.

In the earliest of the 12 works that made up this miniretrospective, Carkeek joined pairs of variously grained plywood panels in horizontal diptychs that suggest pensive landscapes or seascapes. The whorls and swirls resembling surging seas beneath cloudy skies, which she carefully pulls from the grain in Time Accumulation Series #5, 1986, reveal a latent pantheism. It is as if the patterns on a cross section of a tree and the surface of the ocean are determined by the same natural design. The resemblances and resonances, affinities and interdependencies that Carkeek discovers reveal these constant but elusive natural rhythms.

In a sequence of paintings called “Nature Scene Series,” 1987, each made of several pieces of differently veined plywood jigsawed together to form a rectangle, Carkeek turns away from the landscape. Greater formal articulation—sharp angles and a patchwork of textures—lend these works an abstract quality. Yet Carkeek’s restrained palette of dark ochres, olive greens, and midnight blues imbue these compositions with some of the brooding animism that is characteristic of the landscapes.

In her most recent work, Carkeek employs a single large sheet of plywood for each composition, and finds in their complex patterned surfaces a remarkable register of mood. There is so much drama in some of their grained surfaces that they no longer suggest nature, but nature as experienced and mediated by artists such as Edvard Munch, Claude Monet, or Albert Pinkham Ryder. Unlike these artists, however, Carkeek acquiesces to nature, refusing to intervene as aggressively as art traditionally has. Working in a controlled symbiotic relationship with her sources, she discovers, rather than generates, visual incident. Carkeek’s most recent works often resemble camouflage designs dappled with leaf silhouettes. This resemblance is not merely visual, it is structural as well; it speaks of Carkeek’s desire to turn nature in on itself, and to make the unseen visible.

James Yood