It's a Long Way to Row Across the Lake: The Paintings of Barry Roal Carlsen

The Wisconsin Academy Review

by THOMAS H. GARVER, September 1996

I recall the first time I saw Barry Carlsen’s paintings. It was in the late 1980s and a friend said that I must have a look at these tiny pictures which were so charged with emotion and feeling. When I called at his studio, the garage behind his home in an older neighborhood on Madison’s east side, my first reaction was one of shock. The small space was crowded with pictures, but they were large and complete with constructed attachments that seemed eager to snatch at my clothing. These were earlier works, which Carlsen now accurately characterizes, as “overwrought graduate school stuff.“

But there, nestled on the back wall, was a group of tiny pictures, none of them larger than this page. Not only were they small, they were simply and directly painted and glowed with a wonderful internal light. One longed to pick them up and look at them closely, but the artist was a bit diffident about them. They were personal, too small, and maybe “just not important enough to exhibit,” yet they possessed an absolute ring of sincerity, made all the sharper by their large companions at the front of the studio.

It took Barry Carlsen a little time to acclimate himself to these works, for what had been produced as an intimate act of love and faith was so shockingly different from everything that he thought was important about the so-called “art of museums” in which he longed to participate. He was about to learn that the best art of museums is created from a personal amalgam in which honesty plays a greater role than fashion.

As so often happens with artists, Carlsen’s creative force was set in motion through a seminal and critical life experience, the death of his father a few years before. The great personal loss was compounded by a stark visual one: the demolition of a splendid and coherent group of nineteenth-century warehouse buildings in Omaha, Carlsen’s home town, to be replaced by an indifferent corporate headquarters structure. In seeking a personal way of commenting on these losses from his life, Barry Carlsen began to make small paintings of his memories, personal “anti-masterpieces” in an old-fashioned style and size. Perhaps he had also come to recognize that the art he had created as a student was empty of meaning and true emotion, and the only way to grasp both form and content, structure and feeling, was to start again.

The tiny works I saw in the studio that day, the first pictures of his “mature” style, contained much of the visceral, intellectual, and visual information that continues to inform his work, including the paintings reproduced here. His paintings were (and continue to be) approximate and spiritual memories, triggered by the recall of magical times when his family traveled from the stifling heat of Omaha to the cool refreshment of a summer cabin on Toad Lake in northern Minnesota. Here Barry and his father went fishing, and it is to this place that his images (with many variations) returned, and continue to return. Almost all the pictures portray water, and Carlsen recalls not only the days and evenings spent on the water but the emotional effect water had on him. “Water to me has always been mysterious. Sometimes it’s intriguing, even compelling and sometimes frightening. It’s always had that duality, and I’ve always wanted to live around water so I could experience it more often.”

Barry Carlsen’s little scenes are visions of landscape on the cusp of change, either before or after the heat and light of midday. In these penumbral works, the light is so soft that detail is masked in ambiguity, the distant shore is all but lost in shadow, and a light across the water becomes a mysterious beacon. These are very quiet pictures, and must be comprehended as they were painted—within the reach of one’s arms—an envelope of creation we are obligated to enter if we are to experience them fully. Let it never be said that paintings must be large to be powerful.

Some have suggested that Barry Carlsen’s paintings are in some manner “surreal,” to which I would have to disagree. Time and space are not manipulated, but are rather selected to suggest a longer and more slow-moving skein of thoughts. The paintings hint at a time past, but they certainly are not simply visual elegies to some undefined loss. Rather, by the diffusion of their subject, we are made to reflect upon our own experiences and memories.

Consider the two pictures which frame this portfolio on the front and back covers of the publication. The painting on the front, April Morning, has a real zest to it. The boat and rower are near to us, the physical activity of rowing more present, and the lake into which the rower moves is covered with a glorious warm mist. The sun is rising on the beginning of a day of splendid memory. The image on the back cover is a night scene, Burning Memories. There are no human figures present, a rare work with no boat upon the water, yet a human hand has stoked that fire. Here, warmed by the blaze, one gazes out across the water, lighted by the cool glow of the moon. Moonlight and firelight: steady cool intellection tempered by the flickering heat of a more physical sort. We are warmed by the fire, but we are on the beach, unprotected and vulnerable. The pleasures of the evening will finally be tempered and tested by the long row back across the lake, to the dock on which a light has been left burning for us. Then we will be at home.

Barry Carlsen is now approaching his fortieth year, and what in the long apprenticeship of the artist will be his greatest and most productive period, both in the quantity of the works of art he produces and in their quality. Yet this is not an easy time for any artist, particularly one who lives and works in a city which cannot offer the nourishment of the rich art life of one of the few great creative centers in America. Barry must seek his sustenance from within, and like the painters of old, he must be able to continually renew forms which are respected by their venerability. He must do this by the act of bringing his own life experience to the works of art he creates so that these pictures are marked as creations of the present time and not a retrograde worship of the past. It is a fine line to follow, for it takes humility and a willingness to shake off quick praise for a more considered analysis. We shall watch Barry Carlsen’s paintings—today and tomorrow—with great interest, and enjoy them with great pleasure.

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