Chicago

Rodney Carswell

Roy Boyd Gallery

Rodney Carswell’s recent paintings are acts of great cunning: they fuse scrupulous craftsmanship with wry sequences of subtle dislocations that call his entire enterprise into question. He typically employs the pristine pictorial language of Modern geometrical abstraction in slightly skewed and amended forms, altered just enough to keep his compositions tense and expectant. As in the work of Robert Mangold, regularity of design becomes the field for surprising formal disjunctions.

Take, for example, 3 Colors Bordering An Irregular Empty Shape, 1991; here, as always, Carswell lifts his surface off the wall on a wooden cradle like an esthetic trophy. Familiarity with his work suggests that a structurally tangential crossbar, partially filling the empty void at this work’s center, is not employed unintentionally. A somnolent and meandering sequence of gray, brown, and blue squares of rich oil paint mixed with wax winds its way around the composition, initially adhering to a regular pattern that is later violated. Starting at top left, Carswell dutifully repeats the gra-ybrown-blue rhythm eight times all the way around the painting, until suddenly, in the final repetition, the color order switches to gray-blue. It is as if a pact had been broken, as if some justifiable expectation had been denied. Carswell’s picture conjoins fragments of seemingly irreconcilable languages, creating jarring tensions that both delight and, like a purposefully defective Rubik’s Cube, frustrate.

The sacrosanct elements of geometrical abstraction—the cross, circle, rectangle,and arch—are all employed, but each is somehow elliptically abraded and adjusted. There is more than just pictorial chicanery or sleight of hand motivating his geometrical arrangements; indeed, these works are all imbued with spiritual resonances. Carswell’s deeply saturated colors bear the history of their methodical buildup, adding to the overall aura of seriousness. In Cross in Light Grey Green (Split) with 3 Holes, 1991, a subtle Malevich-like cross that is almost invisibly embedded within the work gives this piece a sober, reflective air. Carswell pierced this picture with three different-sized perfectly round portholes, introducing just enough pictorial irreverence to leaven its air of high seriousness. The majority of the paintings in this exhibition are empty at their center, suggesting an ultimate framing device; these works are somehow all edge, and all on edge, perpetually tugging themselves together and apart.

James Yood