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Nicolas Carone: Paintings from 2008-2009

Washburn Gallery, March 19 – May 2, 2009

Nicolas Carone, veteran artist of 1940s New York and still painting some sixty years on, presents new work at Washburn Gallery this month: eight fast, vigorous, and poised arrangements in gray and white and black acrylics. The thick and drippy marks of Carone’s brush carve out forms (figures mostly, and veiled, triangular geometries), but they also diagram the underlying spaces of those compositions, criss-crossing the gray ground. With the exception of one work, the paintings are executed on tarpaulin, the plastic waterproof kind you throw over your bike to keep it from rusting in the rain. As a whole, one can detect that Carone appreciates the speed it lends his line.

That line has often been compared to de Kooning’s, and with fair reason. Like the Dutch Abstract Expressionist, Carone is an excellent draftsman and, even when he’s painting, there’s a graphic quality to his wending mark. That these paintings are done chiefly in a gray-white palette (a departure from Carone’s colorful 1950s style) opens up the possibilities even further: “What can a line do?” he seems to be asking. Everything is drawing, or starts in drawing, from the paint dribbles to the figure contours to the swaths of background color built up by swirls of re-brushed gray.  

Nicolas Carone, “Social Phobia” (2009). Acrylic on canvas, 75 × 94 in. Courtesy of the Washburn Gallery, New York.
Nicolas Carone, “Social Phobia” (2009). Acrylic on canvas, 75 × 94 in. Courtesy of the Washburn Gallery, New York.

These painting are abstract in the original sense of the word: they are not studies in form per se, but exercises in the process of abstraction, the distillation of human form and experience into painterly phenomena. What is drawing, or painting for that matter, if not a mechanism for understanding the world and translating it into a personal vocabulary? Carone lets these translations wander where they may, incorporating the stutters of a dry brush or the watery flow of a milky-white wash into the logic of the painting. But you can always make out the world in them, no matter how abstract they become. Even when the figures are absent, the language of figuration persists, his shapes and shadows rendered with the rounded curviness of a human torso or the refracted angularity of a folded, pulled-back curtain.

One of Carone’s strategies here seems to be inverting the relationship between negative and positive spaces. A recessed triangle will pop out into a bony protuberance, or the black ground between two shapes will become a rounded, weighty form. Figures switch roles too: an elbow, at second glance, reads as a dim silhouette, or the arced hip of a turning woman marks out, with equal conviction, another figure’s curved and bending back. This shifting about can be exciting, but it can fight itself to a tired finish, too. It’s sometimes hard to “fix” these works in a way that makes sense, their obscure surfaces turned up against even the most persistent viewer.

Yet these compositions maintain a very marked sense of arrangement. In fact, presentation—forms selected, gathered, and laid out for the viewer—is a central part of the work they do. Even in their scrawling, dripping state, they bring to mind figural tableaux or still lifes: a crucifixion, the static energy of a frozen war scene, personal objects gathered on a flattened surface. The 75 × 94 inch “Social Phobia” is vaguely reminiscent of the whores of “Demoiselles,” but has even more in common with the bathers of Cézanne or Matisse, figures gathered, hidden, at a pool. In all of these arrangements, Carone evokes a sense of social space that is private but shared, bodily but expansive, tactile and visual at the same time. This is apparent from the associations that hang around the figures, but also from the way in which they’re painted, like the folds and wrinkles of rumpled bed sheets or old laundry, Carone’s creased, meandering marks are formal and inanimate, but tinged with the mark of human intimacy.

De Kooning, too, turned to the figure as a site of renewed activity alongside his highly abstract work. But where that artist—like Miró and Dubuffet before him—pursued the lone and frontal figure, Carone has displayed a sustained (if lately more focused) interest in the wider web of figural interaction. It is not the essence of man or woman he’s after, but the social—and visual—matrices in which we act. It’s an interesting departure point, partaking equally of modernist idioms and a far longer history of social man and woman rendered in their environment. The paintings at Washburn can be obscure and difficult to read at times. But they do something unique and compelling. In their equivalence between visual space and human space, they suggest a new way for talking about painterly depth, and about the experiential matter that grounds, binds, and divides us.


Emily Warner

Emily Warner is a New York-based critic and writer, and former Editorial Intern at NYFA Current.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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