Borderlines of sky
Dium – the ether, the universe – is the name that Joseph Carlson has given a series of photographs and canvases, in which he has forced the immensity of the universe to take a certain form by imposing borders and finiteness. It is not difficult for the viewer to recognise that Paris and its back courtyards are depicted in these photographs. To be more precise, what we see is the Parisian architecture that started thriving in the 18th century as a growing number of blocks of houses changed the face of the city. In his work Tableaux de Paris poet Louis-Sébastien Mercier noted that “a concerted effort was made on several occasions to limit [the city’s] size, but the buildings repeatedly extended beyond its boundaries; gardens disappeared; day after day, hammers and protractors forced the fields farther and farther into the distance”.
Carlson explores both the light-coloured sandstone architecture of customary, cramped inner courtyards, with their typical wrought-iron railings, and the more contemporary, less ornate buildings as if he were Gregor Samsa – Kafka’s man-turned-vermin – on his back. This creates a perspective that draws our eyes upwards to dizzying heights. Unpeopled, claustrophobic and impersonal, these outer walls, with their innumerable windows, are also reminiscent of 1920s movie scenes set in big cities. Investigating a motif from a fixed perspective, while using a selection of distinct yet overwhelmingly similar subjects, results in a movement that strives for liberation and for the dissolution of boundaries. This movement is the core of the composition and yet seems to “unfold in the void” on account of the irregular space being outlined by a rigid line. The aligning straight lines found in city architecture constantly make strikingly similar borders, which are unique nonetheless. This phenomenon makes one think of Walter Benjamin, who in his Arcades Project (Passagenwerk) noted that the city “only seemed to be uniform”. Central in Carlson’s work is the grey and colourless light of the Parisian sky devoid of all nuance. In the ether or universe alluded to in the title of the series, only mere traces of confined endlessness are present. These, nonetheless, set a process of disassociation in motion.
We find ourselves in the urban space of modernity. Instinctively, one is reminded of depictions of Paris in the 19th century. However, Carlson’s sky is not able to bring to mind the skies filled with birds, smokestacks and drifting clouds featured in the etchings of Charles Meryon, or even the cloud studies done for Impressionist paintings. Carlson’s photographs are more a testament to his efforts to formalise. His sky takes centre stage as a nearly neutral and blank space devoid of atmosphere. Around it, Paris – the literary and artistic “capital of the 19th century” (Walter Benjamin) – becomes an unalterable frame for something that is intrinsically shapeless and infinite. In his Arcades Project, Benjamin described the “topographical outlines” that feature in Balzac’s novels and stories set in Paris, through which the writer was able to describe and hold fast to “the mythical state of his world”. In Balzac’s work squares, streets and neighbourhoods are described in such a way that makes them the material expression of time, change and the significance of both. The “splendours and miseries” (Balzac) of the city and its inhabitants also fascinated the flâneurs of the 19th century, who sauntered through the bustling and seething city, feeling its inspiring energy and experiencing the utmost joy when losing themselves in it. As Balzac says in The Physiology of Marriage, “Sauntering is a science; it is the finest cuisine afforded to the eye. […] to saunter is to live”.
Carlson’s way of looking at the city, however, leads us away from pulsating city life. The city merely acts as a frame – a window to an empty image space, which quickly gains an intrinsic aesthetic value. Using this initial image, the shapes of sky are then cut out from the framing images and translated onto a canvas. The shape itself remains a void and a blank space, but it also attests to the dialectic interrelation with the original motif that gave rise to its creation. This process can be seen as one of thesis and antithesis, illustrating both a positive and negative shape, and contemplating what is real and what is abstract. The process is also an examination of how image shapes are created; it is a rejection of the attempt to dream up and produce new shapes, illustrating instead that “new” shapes must simply be identified and recognised as such. It is in this regard that Carlson’s works can also be viewed as metaphors for the relationship of perception and of comprehending what has been perceived. It is not so much a question of studying arbitrary specifications and their pictorial adaptation, but rather one of transforming a given medium into a different one. It is an investigation of the interplay of photography and painting that first occurs when the transfer process begins.
In essence, Carlson’s approach to painting is not a direct one. He speaks through the medium of photography. He seems to have specifically selected Paris as a motif in his photography, on account of the fact that the city (as is the case with England) can be seen as the birthplace of photography. When in the late 1830s the first daguerreotypists began taking photographs of the city – quite often from the rooftops – Paris became the most popular motif for photographers. The new technique meant artists needed no longer concern themselves with the prevailing practice of painstakingly reproducing real life and could instead focus on being more inquisitive and artistically innovative. It was from then on that artists such as Charles Meryon recognised the distinct possibilities that the etching process offered in depicting Paris. These artists explored their true artistic potential and in turn created an indelible impression of the city. Carlson’s approach in his work is is to now place photography back within the context of painting.
As mentioned earlier, Carlson’s approach to painting is not a direct one. The same can be said about his approach to shapes. He derives his motifs indirectly, like his “cropped” images of the sky, and translates these onto the canvas as a shape that is abstract and pure. The opaque, monochrome acrylic paints that Carlson uses serve to emphasise the fixedness and uncompromising permanence of the shape created. The shape emerges as a minimalist blank space, which from then on speaks for itself. It can appear as an individual piece of art or as a diptych; it can also, however, be reintegrated into an existing composition. Hanging on the walls high above the viewer at regular intervals, the shapes in this large-scale exhibition series resemble notes on sheet music. Small and large shapes, jagged and more or less linear, complex and simple shapes all give the series a sense of rhythm and variation. The result is a kind of second-order universe created by Carlson himself. The limitations of the “cut-out shapes” transcend the limitlessness of their implementation. While the views of the sky in the upper row act like windows to this new world, the shapes in the row beneath them represent an altogether different kind of limitlessness: they are the expression of pure minimalism, a thesis which through the antithesis – the windows of sky – causes the motivic composition to become dialectically broken.
And it is this dialectic that makes Carlson’s work so engaging. His method allows viewers to discover different semantic and hermeneutic levels, and invites them to reflect on abstraction processes. These processes first become evident, however, in the interplay of the various media – when viewers engage themselves with the connection between the original motif in the photos and the shape that has been detached from it as a part of the alternating interplay of original image and residual image. It is then that Carlson’s shape creations truly begin to speak and a significance that goes beyond the conventionality of the repeated pattern begins to unfold. The shapes oscillate between drawing boundaries and crossing them. Carlson’s Dium series is a paradoxical game, which perpetually revisits the idea of the limitlessness of both actual and abstract shapes and presents the multi-layered results to the viewer.
Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Le Tableau De Paris, 12 Volumes, 1781-88.