The physical premise of a painting is a flat, bland surface with straight edges and four ninety-degree corners – in short, an empty canvas. Painting itself could be described as the painter’s conversation with this object, an interchange that endows blankness with incident and flatness with depth. In recent times, painters have not always accepted without question the basic premise of their medium. In the 1970’s Cynthia Carlson has challenged its traditional shape by endowing certain canvases with jagged outlines. Cutting canvases into strips and reweaving them into rough fabrics, she dispensed with flatness and thereby provided paint with a new environment. Since 2015 she has revised the edges another way.
To understand what Carlson accomplishes with these recent works, we might imagine that her conversation with the canvas begins with an acknowledgement mixed with an exhortation: Yes, your familiar shape and surface provide painted imagery with an ideal environment and yet don’t you think you could be a bit livelier? Or a lot livelier? Of course it is the artist herself who must answer these questions, which she does by joining standard canvases in strikingly fresh configurations.
It could also be seen as Carlson’s good-humored rebuke to the idea that anything in her art could be that simple as she draws us into a different sort of game, one where the rules are fluid and we win by taking part in their potentially endless revision. Here we see the subtlety of her colors inflecting the clarity of her forms. As vision luxuriates in the proliferation of visual possibilities, we feel as if she has drawn us into her conversation with her medium. In the warm, welcoming light of these works, it begins to look as if the canvas was never the empty, neutral premise that painting’s theorists have so often said it was. The canvas has an inner life, rich and usually hidden, which Carlson has rendered visible with her unflagging inventiveness and generous sense of humor.