by Myrna Zanetell
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Artist’s focus shifts to area landscapes
Rendered in exquisite detail, paintings by El Paso’s enigmatic artist Robert Carlson are as mesmerizing and unique as the artist himself. While his subject matter over the past 45 years has ranged from the realism of 19th century trompe d’oeil compositions and vignettes celebrating the beauty of the Hispanic culture to whimsical portraits of eggs and nutcrackers, his most recent artistic focus has been on landscapes celebrating the beauty found in close proximity to his Upper Valley home.
His reintroduction to the landscape genre began when local collectors commissioned him to create artwork to hang in their home in Montana, and asked that it be inspired by El Paso’s desert environment.
Carlson responded to their request with a three-painting composition comprised of a large horizontal image of the Franklin Mountains centered between two vertical paintings, a yucca plant on the left and an ocotillo on the right.
Since then Carlson has explored the intrigue of the Franklins with a myriad of additional canvases. Large thunderheads rising above the mountains add drama to some compositions while others focus on the iconic mauve image of the Thunderbird. Many simply reflect the mountains’ ever changing moods. Continuing with a southwestern theme, the artist has also painted the Rio Grande, native desert flora and even the quiet byways along the irrigation canals.
“My aim with these is to encourage viewers to go beyond their familiarity with the area and look for beauty in unusual settings,” Carlson said.
“I think of these paintings as portraits rather than landscapes. Like a person, natural features display a distinctive personality, which is most often related to the season, the weather and even the time of day. As a painter, these factors strongly affect the sharpness of the imagery and the colors of my palette. For instance, in the morning and evening, the sun casts strong shadows on either the north or south crevices in the mountain so the image is a bit softer. Conversely, midday features become sharp and shadows are not as critical to defining the mountain’s character.
“The colors I chose also vary. Some evenings require a blend of lavender and blue while others are blessed with those insane golden and red sunsets. During these, the mountains come alive with colors you will never see any other time of day. Conversely, in the morning when the sun has not yet topped the mountain, its color is a gray-green, almost bland. Subtle colors like this are very difficult to match. It’s much easier to paint stronger hues.
“I love the work I’m doing so much that should I find a sponsor, my ideal project would be to paint a diorama of the Franklins beginning at Anthony Gap, running all the way to town, then wrapping around the tip and returning up the east side. Getting the proper perspective for such a large work would require having it hung in a circular setting like a huge diorama.”
Because ideas constantly bombard Carlson’s subconscious, most of his paintings are the result of personal inspiration. Although each canvas the artist produces is distinctly one of a kind, certain elements encourage further exploration of individual themes. Between 1975 and 1983, his brush yielded more than 500 pun-based egg paintings; mice romped through later compositions hidden by flowers or exploring a bottle of wine; while some of his most evocative canvases challenge the viewer to interpret the meaning behind his non-objective imagery.
Carlson explains that his “nutcracker” series was perhaps one of his most challenging to paint. “Because of the exactness of the shapes and the preciseness of shading required to give the figures a three-dimensional look, the work became quite demanding. In spite of this, these remain one of my favorite subjects. I guess this is because they represent a type of folk art which reminds me of Karlsruhe, Germany, where I was born.
“For me the process of becoming an artist involves two distinct fundamentals. The first is the skill side: learning how to draw, mix paints and see colors. I have mastered that and now I use those skills in being creative. Being self-taught I don’t follow traditional painting methods. My process is very intuitive – I simply allow the subject to tell me how it wants to be painted.”
He shares that this process calls to mind Michelangelo’s simple reply when he was asked how he went about sculpting his David: “I just chip away everything that’s not him,” he said, adding, “In the end, the real skill for an artist is learning to see, and then transforming what you see into your painting.”
As a change of pace Carlson gives visual affirmation to his interests as a self-admitted “foodie” and wine connoisseur with yet another departure in subject matter – that of designing collectible labeling for wineries to include El Paso’s Zin Valle and California’s Duckhorn Vineyards and Bevan Cellars.
Recently he also tried another experiment: “I invited two very talented people into my studio, set up easels for them and just gave them the freedom to paint whatever inspired them.” One of the two is his Denver-based nephew, Chris Carlson.
“Chris is 30 years old and never even picked up a pencil until he was 27. Now he is doing chalk art full time and is really quite good. The other, is the son of a friend who lives in Austin. I’ve seen his drawings since he was in grade school. In both cases their imagination is what called me. It doesn’t matter to me whether they decide to become professionals. It was something I wanted to do as a way to give back to others who have supported me.”
Those who know Carlson best often share stories about his devotion to an almost obsessive work ethic.
“For most of my life I have painted from early morning to late evening seven days a week,” he said. However, with his 65th birthday just on the horizon, Carlson has begun to mellow a bit for two distinctly differing reasons. The first is that he is beginning to suffer from macular degeneration. “I am treating the problem, and so far I believe my paintings are even sharper. However, I do have to take more breaks and not work as many hours each day. As to other limitations, I will simply deal with them as they arise.”
A more positive motivation is that Carlson recently discovered the wonder in his latest incarnation, that of grandfather to 14-month-old Zoe, daughter of his daughter, Clarisa, who lives in California, and Zadie, the 3-month-old daughter of his Austin-based son, Rene. Proudly displaying photos of each on his tablet, Carlson confides, “I never thought I would be one of those, but I am. Zoe won’t go to bed each night until she has talked to Grandpa – thank God for the gifts of modern technology.”
When it comes to speculating on the next trend in Carlson’s oeuvre, the only advice is to expect the unexpected. No matter how diverse the subject, the one constant in all Carlson imagery is his invitation to the viewer to react to the painting.
“I feel like the most important aspect is that it must evoke some emotion. This could be humor, a familiar memory or even finding intellectual stimulation, but there must be a connection between artist and viewer for a painting to be defined as great art.”
Art & Framing Gallery
Plan to attend an exciting new exhibition, “El Paso del Artistas” at the Art and Framing Gallery, 6519-A N. Mesa, which will contrast the work of four members of the established generation of artists: Francisco Romero, Hector Bernal, Robert Dozal and Daniel Padilla, with that of four up-and-coming painters of the Millennial generation: Christian Apodaca, Luis Lozono, Patrick Gabaldon, and Francisco Espino. The opening reception will be 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, March 4, featuring a wine and cheese buffet and live music.
Members of all of the art groups in El Paso and individual artists are invited to donate 8” x 10” framed paintings to help raise funds for the repair of the elevator at the International Museum of Art, 1211 Montana. All mediums are welcome.
Works will be sold during the gala fundraiser “Elevate Your Art” May 7 at the Museum. Information available at internationalmuseumofart.net. You can also email email@example.com or call 543-6747 or email Judy Hampton at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Myrna Zanetell is a freelance writer
specializing in the visual arts.
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