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Carolyn Case review in Art Spiel

Test Kitchen, Carolyn Case’s show at Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, consisted of 4 oil paintings on panel along with 8 pastel drawings. Hefty brush strokes fill the surface area of the oil paintings. The painterly process involves a buildup of incremental adjustments, the layers of paint applied one by one until the shapes solidify into a kaleidoscopic arrangement; one nudge and the elements will shift accordingly, morphing the image into an entirely new pattern. Each of the paintings gives the impression of a specific time of day, indicated by the character of light and color playing across the space. Monet’s Water Lilies come to mind. But in place of Monet’s serene refuge, Case’s light lingers over a sink full of dirty dishes.

The work in this show is abstract. But I notice cherries and old pizza slices, a discarded apple core nestled in a trash bin. The colors in Untitled are murky, but where the light hits, they become vibrant. Shadow Sink seems to hardly contain any solid objects at all. Instead, it presents a brightly lit ground upon which shadows of unseen cans, pots, and cooking utensils are cast.

Spatulas are a repeated motif. A spatula scoops, lifts, presses, serves. Immersed in organic matter; it is an instrument of the hand. A paintbrush functions in a similar manner, but to different ends. In blobs and smears, the brush produces a record of each flick of the hand, the pressure or lightness with which it is applied, and the speed of the arm as it moves across the surface of the painting. It marks time.

The whirring liveliness of the paintings implies a churning swarm of family activity. Lines are dash-like. Vague silhouettes of cooking tools are arranged between energetic patches of color. Sprays of water from cornered faucets half-heartedly attempt to fend off the mess. The artist is present, acting within the space, but she is also a witness. She wields her brush in an effort to contain the flurry, to pin the light down, to pause time. Paint acts as both noun and verb, a gesture made solid.

The most descriptive moment in Hanging Rack is a tiny hook from which hangs a long object in the shape of a spatula. This small hook is my access point into the painting, the pin upon which the entire composition rests. But as I step in to see it up close, it devolves. It is only a thin brush stroke, laid in on the earliest layer of paint on the panel surface, with quick flicks of the hand.

Paint accumulates on these panels like compost. Earlier swaths of color peek through piles of intensely colored gunk. As a corrective technique, rather than sanding away unwanted portions of paint, the artist has employed bits of canvas paper to cover over earlier decisions. Collaged onto the painting in large, square patches, and in short, hyphen-shaped segments, the shapes of these cut sections are unconcerned with the forms around and upon them. Slapped on, they camouflage into the atmosphere of the painting like a section of artificial turf in the middle of a grassy lawn.

Hanging Rack’s palette is bright and clean. It could have been taken directly from a pack of Starburst candies, each chewy candy color accounted for, along with the way it looks against its bold individual wrapper. At 42 x 50 inches, the painted panel spreads almost as far as I can stretch my arms. Across the upper half of the image, solid blocks of color in the shapes of pans and spatulas strike a resonant tone. Behind them, the space breaks open as if to let in blue light from a window beyond.

On the lower portion of the painting, a densely packed block of colors skitters across the surface, layered like a stacked lasagna sandwich. Driving melodically from left to right, this section of articulated color is a world in itself. Muted at the top, the chroma gradually increases as it reaches the bottom.

To the right, a large, flat square of canvas paper is collaged on. Stained with washes of hot pink and sunset orange, it offers a warm breath against the incessant motion of the lasagna stack. Its aura is as carefree as its placement is specific. Visually, this square of fabric is worked into the surrounding space by the application of thick brush strokes slapped over its borders. They are the kind of marks you might make with the old brush you once used to paint your kitchen’s trim. The square of canvas paper appears pinned to the panel by these strokes, sloshed on and suspended in space.

In Red Sink, streaks of red burst from the center of the panel with the attitude of sizzling tomato sauce. Two fishes and a smattering of small pepperoni-like shapes are dispersed in choppy bits like the residue that sticks to the inside of a Tupperware lid. Short, painted lines scattered across the panel mimic sewn threads cut loose, unraveling into stray noodles. A pan at the bottom contains a heavy blue. The blue-filled pan holds its position. It is an inversed stop sign, stagnant against the turning world.

Pictorial space is often delineated through the consideration the artist has given to the periphery. Sometimes, the rectangle of the panel’s outer edge is echoed, reinforced by an additional border painted just inside. In Untitled, the rim of the trash can’s picnic blanket patterning is high-contrast, establishing itself as a focal point before moving around the central square, softly into shadow. The border in Red Sink functions in the opposite manner. A gentle frame of blue day light with flashes of yellow sunlight encircles the red explosion, softly cradling the active interior section of the painting. A seeping overgrowth conflicts with the need to corral each element into position. The mess is chaotic but it is lovingly wrangled.

In these haphazard arrangements, the painter establishes a sense of order, organized by light. Amidst the clumping, slashing, and wiping light moves by way of temperature shifts. Colors transition from bold to neutral, shadow to spotlight. Light acts as a unifying force, entering the space quietly and inflecting its influence on every painterly move. The arm of the artist moves at a quick tempo. The marks are controlled but they can’t stay long.

Inhabiting the role of both mother and painter, I imagine Case’s studio time is probably divided into scheduled segments. Interrupted time forces swift responses and decisive adjustments. There is joy in the process but maintaining it requires vigilance. Attention is intangible but it can be held. It is unhurried, focused, deliberate. Distribution of attention is negotiated as the artist molds her experience into concrete form, reaching for what has passed through, building upon the groundwork laid by earlier intentions. Via bursts of rigorous activity, the structure of a painting emerges slowly. With the ephemeral presence of a rainbow, the completed image is observable but not graspable.

We nurture in incremental movements. We make accommodations. Our ordinary actions develop richness over time. We apply our energy where it is most needed, make room for the unexpected, and settle into a precarious sense of wholeness – for now.


Rachel Jeffers is an artist based in Richmond, VA. She is currently enrolled in Turps Banana Correspondence Course, a mentorship program for painters. She holds an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art’s Mount Royal School of Art and a BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design. @racheljeffersstudio