One of the more seductive propositions made by visual art is that what we see in a gallery or museum has the power to change how we experience the all-too-visible, everyday world. Not only do habits of seeing die hard, they tend to make us oblivious. Then along comes an artist to get down inside us, and frighten those habits away.
Art Gallery of Windsor curator Cassandra Getty has put together a two-part rendezvous with the unfamiliar that tantalizes us with what we think we see. Each of the show's two galleries focuses on a separate series of works on paper by Windsor painter Dean Carson: one, a suite of 12 minimalist watercolors (flanked by four larger oils that seem like a footnote); the other, a sequence of 10 drawing-responses to Japanese master Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film, Rashômon. At first glance, they could be the output of two radically contrasting minds: in the south gallery, the repetitive gestures of a silent meditator, while in the north end, the turbulent visions of an obsessive moviegoer. But get in close, look long enough, and the thematic and formal similarities rise to the surface of these subtly linked, supremely self-confident projects.
Sensitively hung on dark-gray walls and lit for maximum intimacy, Carson's ephemerally pastel, banded watercolors inscribe themselves in a minimalist tradition that encompasses both the fragmented precision of an Agnes Martin, and the colorist poetry of a Morris Louis. Entering this gallery is like stepping onto the bank of a rushing stream in a hidden forest. The only sound is of the water, uniform and endless, but slight fluctuations are noticeable as each rivulet hits a rock, or the streambed, or the bank itself. Carson composes a similar dance of irregularity, a visual one that morphs into lateral movement as his vertical bands multiply, vary and interact in waves of saturation and softness. Although some of the brushstrokes are uniformly pale, suggesting a great deal of water and not much pigment in the wash, others have a slightly darker edge, as if the artist has outlined them with a microscopic pencil of the same blue or beige. It's a masterful touch, one suggesting great technical control, and reminiscent of the exactness of Japanese calligraphy, with its gorgeous, maddening combination of freedom and rigor. Finally, each watercolor breaks down into subsidiary relationships of amplitude, frequency and density and as the bands almost literally bump into each other, we notice their gently undulating edges, and find ourselves simultaneously engaged with abstraction and life. This is painting that questions the very activity of representing the world, at the same time that it asks us to rethink limited ways of seeing. Its handmade lines create an illusion of sameness and order that their beautiful imperfection denies.
The Rashômon series, at first, seems to be fixated elsewhere. Carson, who once was an assistant programmer for the Kinotek series at the Windsor Film Theatre, plays his cinema aficionado card by selecting stills from Kurosawa's renowned narrative-puzzle, and rendering them in black oil-paint stick and India ink on horizontal rag paper. In his reworkings of these classic film images, the dappled sunlight on a forest floor becomes an aura drowned in an ebony storm of bushes and branches, as a thief, samurai warrior or a courtly lady crosses over into the eternal moment when death comes calling. But this isn't just Carson leaning on Kurosawa for his effects. Rather, it's an intriguing game of original-to-copy relationships that would have fascinated Plato himself. Starting from the natural landscape, photographed in black and white, and therefore formalized without color, Kurosawa produced an imitation of life radiantly removed from material reality. Then when Carson freezes a frame, and transforms it into a drawing with an abstractly rendered life of its own, he further removes it from "nature," yet infuses it more intensely with the power of sublime form. In this analytical art, seeing is a doorway to thinking.
Only three of the Rashômon drawings focus on cinematic "action": a woman holding a dagger, and two variations on male figures sparring with swords; yet even they appear to be uncannily frozen. The other drawings portray solitary human forms in relation to landscape, suggesting a meditation on existence. In fact, in some of the studies, it's not obvious whether the human shape isn't actually an inanimate one, like a rock. This close encounter with Kurosawa has allowed Carson to uncover "hidden" ways of seeing in the everyday illusions of film narrative. Thus, there's a carry-over from the minimalist watercolors. And as the meditation theme returns, and the play of sun and shadow locates our gaze, we realize almost subliminally that we're back at the stream in the forest, a stream of light.
An absolute must-see, Dean Carson: Wallworks and Film Stills runs through Sept. 2 at the Art Gallery of Windsor, 401 Riverside Dr. W., Windsor; 519-977-0013.
George Tysh, a former Metro Times arts editor, teaches at the Roeper School in Birmingham. Send comments to [email protected]