Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Meditative Environmentalism and Neo-Sublime


Beau Carey's Ceph and Colorado Sarin
Beau Carey’s paintings may be simplified spaces, reducing the landscape to bands of color and open forms but this type of painting is much more complex. It’s a compositional challenge to know just how much to include leaving the artist no place for error. Everything on the canvas is an integral and essential part to conveying the image. Though Carey recently graduated with a Masters in fine art his work reflects his 10+ years of painting experience. Artists working in Carey’s genre of painting make distinct changes in their work over time. They either simplify or include more visual information as their ideas become more complex and insightful.

Some artists easily fall into the habit of being contained by the edges of their canvas. Their aesthetic choices, placement of forms and space become manipulated by the picture plane. Innovative painters tend to buck the formalistic norms. Everything in painting, from the type of paint, the type of surface, the layering and texture of the paint can all play a part in the communication of the concept. Intentionally the subject can be dead center or fall off the edge. In the end art is an illusion that alludes to something else in reality, be it an object or feeling or message. Art exists most powerfully in the mind and imagination. What is not said can be more important. Letting the viewer fill in the blanks is sometimes more potent. In some way Carey’s little spots of information about the landscape and placement of objects can be considered traditional formalistic decisions based on the picture plane. He is contained and allows the canvas edge to dictate the weight and placement of the forms but this is what makes his paintings beautiful. Beauty is partially in the image but mainly in the idea.
Turner's Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1812 and The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1835
In an art world and information age that champions slick consumer culture, eye candy through neon illumination and cluttered surfaces, the openness of Carey’s paintings and muted colors are meditatively nostalgic. There is a sublime sense of contemplative calmness to his work. Some of the first atmospheric types of work referred to as sublime were done by the English painter Joseph Mallard Turner in mid to late 19th century. His inspiration to suspend a moment of terror and mystery for contemplation was sparked by thick London fog, soot filled skies stoked by a coal driven industrial revolution, monumentally disastrous fires, and treacherous alpine and ocean storms. Though he was a meticulous architectural draftsman Turner had another side. His images were obscured and abstracted as evinced by his scribbling and scrubbing style of drawing and painting. He attempted to capture a specific moment in time, both physically and emotionally as it unfolded. Turner’s sublime was based on nature’s powerful and violent conditions. He presented them in the form of blinding atmospheric affects, transforming danger into beauty. Over half a century of sublime romanticism is evinced in seascape works by Caspar David Friedrich and to Gustave Courbet.
Friedrich's Monk by the Sea, 1808-10 and Courbet's The Calm Sea, 1869
Carey’s sublime is a bit different, smooth, more esoteric, akin to a color field painting. Unlike Turner’s focus on nature’s destructive tendencies or the literal tactility of sky and sea by Friedrich and Courbet, Carey with airbrush strokes envelopes us in an infinite expanse of sky and land (possibly the calm before the storm). Vast amounts of lonely quiet space make some people feel insecure, vulnerable, and threatened. In a painting this solitude is palpable, controlled, nonthreatening, and eventually gleaned as beautiful. He describes his paintings as ‘spaces of potential’ drawing our attention to what we would otherwise deem boring and plain thus challenging our perception of desolation.    

He says his work is “critically aware of important issues concerning land use”. I’m not sure he successfully conveys this because what may be mismanaged land use, under utilization, or ugly is made beautiful and complimentary of the surrounding environment. What I do see is the immensity of the sky in relation to a sliver of landscape spotted with tiny buildings, a sublime revelation of how little of the Earth’s surface we occupy. It may be a disaster scenario that says we are on thin ice dependent on a fragile oxygen filled membrane for survival. Under the weight of that infinite sky it could collapse at any moment. 
Philip Govedare's Black Lake, 2011 and Excavation, 2010


Fern Shaffer and Othello Anderson, painting and performance wearing a raffia costume.
Based on what Carey is saying about his work I immediately thought of Philip Govedare’s paintings that depict aerial views of poisoned and decimated natural environments. Though Govedare’s paintings are aesthetically pleasing they quickly read as man-made disasters. Contemporary environmental concerns in art date back to the 70’s and the Eco Feminist movement. More recently Fern Shaffer performs solstice rituals that bring awareness to the denigrated plight of wetlands while her partner Othello Anderson photographs the performances. Their work is manifest in a variety of mediums that include sculpture, installation, and painting. 
Beau Carey's Lakeview and Petro
In Colorado there is a proliferation of contemporary landscape painters. To stand apart is a difficult task. Carey’s paintings have a sophisticated edge that remains consistent throughout his work. Unlike some of his peers who just paint great looking traditionally composed landscapes his work has an intellectual depth informed by social awareness. Carey says, “it is my job to engage fully with my community, allow that engagement to inform my work, and thus allow my work to spur positive action within that community.”  To inform and educate is potent introspection to being an artist. Coupled with a strong sense of formal aesthetics Carey’s paintings will only get better. Beau Carey is an artist in residence at Redline Gallery, Denver.