The exhibition titled David Carlson Ingredients is a visual dialogue between two Marymount faculty members: painter David Carlson and photographer Slobodan Mitrovic. Installed in the University’s Barry Gallery in North Arlington, it includes eleven photographs by Mitrovic, which are details of Carlson’s abstract paintings, along with five of those paintings. Mitrovic, who is also an archaeologist, zooms in on these vibrantly hued, richly textured surfaces as if they were strata of the earth, built up over millennia. At a time when so many exhibitions present art as a backdrop for Instagram, Mitrovic’s photographs encourage viewers to put down their cameras and look carefully at original works of art. In that sense, an LED screen flashing a slideshow of additional photographs seems to undermine this message. However, Mitrovic’s placement of the works within the disjointed spaces of the Barry Gallery, which is comprised of a corridor and a reception area at the Reinsch Library, illuminates a theme of interest to both Carlson and Mitrovic: the nature of memory.
Mitrovic’s idea for the present exhibition originated in Carlson’s show Out of my Mind that was on view from May through July at the new Fred Schnider Gallery in the Ballston quarter of Arlington. The newly renovated white cube gallery space included a small display of abstract works from 1997 and 2014 as well as a more recent series of larger paintings from 2015 and 2016. The clean modernist display highlighted parallels between Carlson’s work and that of twentieth-century painters like Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), whose colorful abstract circles reverberate with the energy of the modern industrial age. However, the layers of pentimenti and densely populated passages of geometric forms in Carlson’s recent paintings can become overwrought, as if reflecting the bombardment of visual information in today’s digital world.
The larger, more complex recent paintings best exemplify how Carlson grapples with the theme of memory. Indeed, Mitrovic was inspired by the stratifications of paint that both reveal and obscure forms in works such as Other Side of Empty. Completed in 2016, this large-scale painting was the focal point at the Fred Schnider Gallery and likewise anchors the exhibition at Marymount University. Red and green ovals burst forth from the center, surging back and forth across disparate color stories. At the left, saturated hues offset by stark black and white evoke a totemic figure or mask-like visage, while bubbly pastel circles arise from the bottom to the top right and eventually spill over to the other side. Through this formal balancing act, Carlson explores how the mind juggles disparate sensations from the outside world with thoughts and memories, which may also shift and change in light of new experiences. And while the title of the exhibition at the Fred Schnider Gallery—Out of My Mind—playfully insinuated that this process could drive some people crazy, his deeper interest in balancing the mind stems from his practice of Tai Chi and study of Buddhist teachings.
Mitrovic, however, is most interested in how textured surfaces augment this interplay of vivid geometric shapes and forms. In Other Side of Empty, only thick outlines of finger-like shapes remain visible under opaque pastel purple circles, suggesting the unconscious, or dormant memories lingering just below the surface. Below this passage, a milky white veil partially obscures the cascading ovals at the center. It suggests something half-remembered, as if the full picture can no longer be brought into clear focus. Elsewhere, like a psychoanalyst in a painter’s smock, Carlson uses sandpaper to wear away the paint and reveal the canvas underneath. He then revisits these techniques and forms throughout the series, often working on multiple paintings simultaneously over several months.
Mitrovic turns his lens on those densely textured passages that result from this time-consuming process. Displayed near Other Side of Empty, Mitrovic’s photograph Ingredient 07 draws the viewer’s attention to a small red dot hovering over the viscous maroon of a bisected circle to the right of the center of the work. Air bubbles animate the streaks of paint, which are then offset by a row of crisply painted colored squares. Thick impasto strokes underlying both sections suggest they share a common history or foundation. And while Mitrovic has photographed a detail or a fragment, as he might document shards of pottery at an archaeology dig, simplified compositions like this one resemble aerial or satellite views of sites.
Mitrovic also rotates the detail in Ingredient 07, challenging the viewer to locate this motif in the original painting. He then pairs it with Ingredient 06, a close view of a fragmented circle from a different painting that is not in the present exhibition, confounding viewers engaged in this sophisticated game of “I Spy.” Having seen the earlier exhibition at the Fred Schnider Gallery, I recalled the thick white impasto strokes marked off by a thin layer of violet, but not the original painting. And since the original was not hanging in the present exhibition, I was left to reflect on the fragmentary nature of my own memory.
For the most part, Mitrovic does not display his photographs alongside the original works from which he took them, in part because many of them sold at the Fred Schnider Gallery this summer. But the photographer turned this inconvenience into a highly effective strategy for encouraging close looking. Viewers must study works on display well enough to remember specific details that they might then compare to other paintings throughout the gallery. In this respect, the division of the exhibition across two spaces is effective.
Finally, it is worth reflecting upon the significance of a university art gallery as the venue for this exhibition. Both Mitrovic and Carlson teach in a broader liberal arts curriculum that challenges students to look closely at the facts, analyze them and draw connections across disciplines. Thus, at the Barry Gallery, they model interdisciplinary dialogue and strategies for critical observation and thinking at a time when many fear they are fading from our collective memory.
David Carlson Ingredients Curated by Slobodan Mitrovic is on view September 7-October 14, 2018 at the Reinsch Library located at 2807 North Glebe Road Arlington, VA 22207 at Marymount University. The gallery is open Monday-Thursday, 10 am – 8 pm and Friday-Saturday, 10 am to 6 pm. Admission is free.