Artpark, Lewiston, NY, 1977

Cynthia Carlson’s work has a pervasive, unbridled energy, like the artist herself. Most of her paintings, drawings and installations (with some exceptions; the Monument and Memento Mori Series, and Vietnam: Sorry About That project), seem hyperactive and jumpy - they just won’t sit still. Coming from Chicago, a city steeped in its own rich and singular artistic tradition, she was influenced in part by the artists who formed The Hairy Who, as well as by others with whom she shared what she calls “funky Surrealist tendencies”. Carlson’s work has a comedic feel – its repetitive themes are quotidian and zany. She shares these aspects of her work with the late Ree Morton, a close friend with whom she taught in Philadelphia: their lives and work were intertwined. Both artists learned early on to be self – sufficient; neither brooked elitist behavior or had time for privileged introspection, and each was unburdened by formalist dictates: they thoroughly understood them, but were free to pick and choose their stylistic preferences and mix them as they saw fit. It has been virtually ignored that Carlson is a pioneer in the Decorative Art Movement, and in feminist artistic practice. Carlson did not set out to engage as a feminist, though she did not avoid it – her methods were simply appropriate to her temperament and suited her needs. She had been working with heavily impasto paint and was looking for a more efficient way to apply it. Carlson was one of the first artists to cover surfaces with stylized paint squiggles squeezed on with a cake decorator (as did sculptor Pat Lasch, whose father was a conditor), creating highly colored, witty, all - over patterns and dimensional units in installations in museums and galleries throughout the country. She first showed this work at Hundred Acres in Soho, in 1976. Shortly afterward Carlson fabricated a ginger bread house at Art Park, a site - specific institution on the banks of the Niagara River. Its entire surface was slathered with delicious- looking patterns and dabs that would certainly have seduced Hansel and Gretel. And yet there was and is a rawness to Carlson’s work– it may be decorative, funny, or colorful (like her recent crazy quilt of cat toy paintings), or seem to whirl like a dervish, but it has an edge, a sense of something not altogether nice. This is especially so in her most recent body of work, based on the quills of a porcupine! While the familiar rhythm and energy are present, and we recognize the almost comic book rendering of the subject matter, the scale is so much larger than life that the paintings are threatening and put the viewer at a decided distance. It is this constant “nice/nasty, come here/move back, have fun/no don’t” conversation that disturbs and makes us look closely at this artist who continues to forge new territory as she dances to her Windy City beat.

Barbara Zucker

August 2008