Cole Carothers’s Outdoor and Indoor Light
By Jonathan Kamholtz
If you go to “Building Sight(s),” Cole Carothers’s new exhibit at the 5Th Street Gallery, looking forward to seeing works in the artist’s traditional look, you may be disappointed. For more than three decades, Carothers has produced paintings that explore the continuities and discontinuities of space. Built up from layers of luminous oil glazing, his pictures tend to place us in a room—often an artist’s studio—often looking out a window at an urban landscape, sometimes grand and sometimes local. The viewer is linked to the scene by the logic of linear perspective, but also kept separate from it by an obstructive wall or a sill or the occasional perverse irrationality of Carothers’s painted spaces. On the windowsill, there may be a meticulously rendered piece of fruit or a bottle of turpentine. The world depicted in these paintings is filled with artful objects; indeed, artfulness has been projected upon everything the painter looks at.
Carothers’s newest works are more fluid and experimental. They are mostly painted on canvas rather than on wooden panels with looser brushwork and thinner paint, featuring calligraphic lines and spatters whose spots and flakes might or not be representational. (The spray of tiny white dots at the top of “In the Wee Hours” might well be snow, but then what are the red ones?) Thick and chalky painted lines take the place of his rich, complex, and monochromatic glazes. There are fewer paintings of studio interiors with correspondingly fewer windowsills with miniature still lifes on them, and fewer rectangles that play with the connections between easels and window frames. In part, the painter has ventured outdoors, though he’s rarely interested in finding a purely natural world. “Under the Mac” captures the brisk colors of the river as it flows underneath the bridge. In “Drop Off,” a muddy river bakes in the sun. While there are no canoers, there is a bridge in the background and the shadow of a fence in the foreground. It is not clear precisely where we are standing.
There are works in the new show with Carothers’s more familiar styles and subjects, such as “Mindset,” in which the studio is seen as an indoor cul-de-sac. On the left wall is a painting of a window, and in front of us is a window that might be a painting. A green wooden chair sits on a yellow wooden plank floor, perhaps calling to mind Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom in Arles, another space where representations of windows and representations of artworks tend to merge. But more typical of the newest work is a 6” x 6” landscape whose title, “Spattered,” identifies one of his means towards a new looseness, or a larger work like “Ocean Bluff,” an aerial view across small plots of farmland to the ocean at Cape Cod. Here, the thinness of the paint has allowed gravity to sketch in some of the finer details. The various pieces of farmland form part of the complex, jigsaw-like geometry that we encounter in many of Carothers’s earlier works, but here the lines and angles play off against irregular brushstrokes that curve and swoop as they build up our sense of natural spaces and surfaces.
“Ingmar” is a painting of the interior of a Michigan vacation cottage with a white wicker chair in the foreground, a bed in the middle ground (it seems made but the pillow seems mussed), and a door in the background opening onto further mysteries of interior space and domestic life. Where Carothers’s earlier work reminded us that painters are workers who have the responsibility of taming some of the mess they leave behind them, “Ingmar” flirts with a sense of leisure time and privilege, a little like William Merritt Chase might. The light comes from a rich combination of indoor and outdoor illumination, part warm and part cool, and the room is dappled with patches of sun. The wicker chair is turned away from the window, through which we cannot see. Though many of Carothers’s earlier works used the window to suggest that we can be both outdoors and indoors at the same time, “Ingmar” suggests that we can only be one or the other, though light doesn’t have the same limitation.
“Whispering Limns” might well be a painting that allows us to look both through and at the window we couldn’t see out of in “Ingmar.” We are positioned obliquely towards the window and only see part of it; it cannot be taken for a painting on an easel. Looser, calligraphic brushstrokes suggest the vivid colors of the woods that surround a cabin. The window’s lower pane is complex to read. Perhaps sunlight is being reflected off a window screen or perhaps it has just caught the dirt and dust on the glass. The paint flows wetly; for that mater, it might have been raining. The lower half of the painting plays with being precisely representational and being immaterial; forms may be uncannily precise or may be dissolving.
Through the top pane of the window, we can see some short shafts of dazzling light come spilling in over the outer meeting rail just next to the lock. Allowing nature in on its own terms, or simply finding it impossible to keep nature out, is part of a deeply American Romantic tradition. The nineteenth century American painter heard nature’s whispers in his brushstrokes, limn by limn. “Whispering Limns” is a glorious painting that seems comfortable with finding terms to let nature into the artist’s space. For a work by an artist used to precise orchestration of small things that will attract our interest, it is spare and eloquent. It is mysterious and spiritual, and humble, and suggests the power of the new directions in which Cole Carothers is taking his work.