Painting Suspense: Madison Artist Carlsen Creates a Sense of Mystery

Madison Capitol Times

By KEVIN LYNCH |  February 17, 2006

Stand back, admire the view and devour the natural beauty.

Or jump right into the water and explore the mysteries located at the intersection of the road less taken and the human psyche.

Either way, Barry Roal Carlsen’s paintings pull you right into his magic realm, where “The Twilight Zone” meets “A Prairie Home Companion.”

This Madisonian is at the top of his game in his new show at Grace Chosy Gallery, 1825 Monroe St., where it is up through Feb. 25.

Dusk is the setting of Carlsen’s best scenes, inspired by his visits to Wisconsin’s North Woods.

At a purely sensory and aesthetic level, I know of no local or national artist more gifted at creating golden hues of a dying day with such radiant tonality and texture.

For example, in “Generations” fiery lance-shaped clouds slash diagonally down toward two figures like the sword of Damocles cutting a deep psychic divide between them. One man rows into shore where an older man with a lantern waits on a pier.

You might see this optimistically as a caring father waiting patiently for his loving son.

For me, the chilly atmosphere tells the real story, cloaked in existential uncertainty.

Don’t trust me? I don’t blame you. Trust your own instincts, your own experience, the artist says.

“I have heard the opinions of a single work of mine run from bright hope to optimistic to the deepest sense of loss,” Carlsen says in his artist’s statement. “Hearing that helps me to understand the work and myself better. But I work to balance the personal with a broader symbolism.”

Carlsen’s biggest works are up to 5 feet wide, the humans are invariably puny. Such is the case with the oil painting “First to Leave.”

Here, a man has left a campfire to stand on a pier and gaze across a darkening lake. He’s looking for a boy who took off on a boat ride.

Carlsen’s elegant hand-made wood frames help you to understand the art. On the frame above the scene is the painted image of a teenage boy standing waist-deep in water holding two boat oars.

It’s like a cinematic flash to an earlier scene. The boy must have taken a solo boat ride, but why hasn’t he returned? With his evocative powers and Alfred Hitchcock-like hints, Carlsen suggests something strange brewing.

“Left on Shore” focuses on a flashlight lying forgotten on the rocks, as a solitary rower crosses the lake toward an island in growing darkness. A light — too wild and intense to be a house light — blazes on the shadowy island. It’s a very large campfire, or something less under control.

Few paintings create this level of suspense instantly, comparable to what a good story or movie might take some time to build.

Ultimately, the issue of light is so enigmatic you could wait till dawn trying to figure this one out. Best to just live with it in your imagination. That’s Carlsen’s brilliant stroke and, of course, a sign of great art.

You want to revisit his works in your mind and your eye because they’re just plain gorgeous and if this isn’t what they call eloquent beauty, it’s a mystery to me what is. Those are the best works on display. But there’s plenty more to see.

Carlsen’s a master of atmosphere. In another work, again a solitary rower makes his way across water before a ghostly morning haze has burned off the lake.

A more conceptual recent painting is a large chessboard pattern and each clockwise square unfolds a sequence of subjects: “live life love lost.” Each word hovers over a lonely river scene, an empty rowboat.

In one of a series of intriguing new lithographs, “Faith and Dark Water,” children are the players and, we fear, sacrificial pawns. Two kids gleefully leap into the water, the surrounding is a layer of hidden imagery of watery stones, words and names, as if one is gazing into the river.

Look before you leap.

Using Format