The City Observed

Excerpted from The City Observed catalog essay | Sardoni Art Gallery, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania

by Stanley I. Grand

Although Barry Roal Carlsen, Douglas Safranek and Stuart Shils each creates small-format paintings depicting contemporary urban landscapes, their sensibilities, formal concerns and content differ considerably. Carlsen’s pictures of a mid-sized, midwestern city express a poetic, oneriric sensibility. Safranek’s punctiliously delineated meditations order the discordance and cacophony of New York City. Shils responds spontaneously to the stimuli of a city undergoing constant cycles of decay and rebirth.

With dramatic contrasts of light and dark, glowing enameled colors, and a multiplicity of detail, Carry Carlsen creates an enigmatic, personal and marginal world bathed in crepuscular light. Suspended between night and day, twilight marks the transition from work to home, public to private lives, waking to sleep. It is a bridge and, not surprisingly, the bridge recurs frequently as a motif in Carlsen’s paintings.

Carlsen depicts a poetic borderland where different worlds intersect and loyalties diverge. Stations suggests the conflict that the artist feels between his studio and his family. In this picture the artist is a night-shift worker for whom the comforting presence of family, suggested by the light emanating from an upstairs bedroom window, is denied. The child’s sled, abandoned by the side of the house, underscores the mood of isolation. The tension between home and work is expressed differently in Night Shift where lower-middle class backyards butt up against industrial sites.

People become marginal in Carlsen’s world. The brave-new-world skyscrapers of the modern service industries march proudly past the vernacular structures of the old rustbelt distribution centers, which seem strangely quiet, eerie, and preternatural. The individuals, like those in Not Forgotten, who hang around these bypassed enterprises engage in mysterious, and often ominous, encounters with each other. Mementoes of projects begun, but left unfinished, abound. The mood is haunting, melancholic and elegiac. Even the world of The Dreamer is troubled by disturbing outside forces-symbolized by a strong wind that depresses and flattens the ascending smoke. The painting’s highly finished, glossy surface becomes a mirror of dreams.

Despite their small scale, Carlsen’s paintings share some of the grandeur of classic nineteenth-century American landscapes. The dramatic, expansive skies recall those of Frederic Edwin Church, but the mood is closer to that of Thomas Cole’s allegorical Course of Empire, updated to show the waning of the American empire. Other influences include the Immaculate painters: Reunion II in particular shows a knowledge of Charles Sheeler’s photographs of the Ford Motor Company plant at River Rouge, Michigan.      

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