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Profile of the Artist Rodney Carswell

Rodney Carswell, Jan 2 (10) (2010). Oil and wax on linen, 12.5” x 12.5”. Courtesy of Devening Projects + Editions © Rodney Carswell


hither and yon (little prisons)

i meander; escape the straight and narrow…only to be so; drift in a random circuit;

stray, losing the path.

i make geometric repetition; mark a border to enforce a limit; my enclosures dictate direction; my outside determines interior; i move: up/down, left/right, back/forth, to/fro, along plumb & plane. i feel my way.

geometry is subjective:  stand the vertical; see to the horizon.  

be in the space; track the partitions; trace and contour.

surface is body; color is name (or light).

the square is a sphere. 

the plane has its limit.


The abstract painter Rodney Carswell (b. 1946) offers this poetic writing to elucidate his recent body of work at Devening Projects + Editions (January 31-March 1, 2010) titled: hither and yon (little prisons).  Although attuned to the nuance and structure of language, he does not incorporate it directly into his artwork; however, he acknowledges that painting is structured similarly to the way language is structured.  He believes each element of a reductive painting, whether abstract or representational, becomes a term cohering with the other terms to form something legible, analogous to speech.  Painting is a system of signification with its own type of syntax, which Carswell employs and individuates with his clear and concise voice.  Inspiration arrives through his own mental thought process: “for better or for worse, I operate in a kind of closed loop.”


Rodney Carswell, Jan 16 (09) (2009). Oil on linen, 25.5” x 24”. Courtesy of Devening Projects + Editions © Rodney Carswell


Abstract painting is an integral part of his creative being which he attributes to growing up in northern New Mexico, which he identifies as “a place characterized by a very elemental, clear, concrete sense of land and space.” Completing a B.F.A. at the University of New Mexico and a M.F.A. at the University of Colorado, Carswell’s art education occurred during the late 60’s and early 70’s, one of the periods of high Abstraction.  Despite his excellent observational training he came to abstract painting early in his artistic formation.  Iconic influences such as Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, Donald Judd and Robert Ryman, all variations of classic minimalists, became important models for his endeavors.  As he matured, Post-minimal artists Eva Hesse, Jackie Windsor, Nancy Graves and Joel Shapiro, gave him precedents for incorporating the notion of the indent, intention or memory of the human figure.  More recent artists such as Robert Gober and Felix Gonzales-Torres have affected his perceptual development through their unwavering confidence in what he describes as “the clear, highly edited unreasonableness of the products of their practices.”


Rodney Carswell, Jan 19 (09) (2009). Oil on canvas, 32” x 27”. Courtesy of Devening Projects + Editions © Rodney Carswell


Adhering to a well defined set of limited variables, Carswell explores painting’s sculptural aspects by considering its materials, structure and space while also articulating the painted surface with aesthetic forms of geometric abstraction, various paint mediums and traces of drawing.  His painting methodology is straightforward:  “I work from drawings kept in a ‘diary’.  I typically build space and surface in layers of paint/color.  I am conscious of interplay between the flatness of the surface/image, the spatial potential of color and the physicality of the painting object and surface.  I am interested in the work being very flat but having body.”  This objective description can be indirectly affiliated with Ryman, whose most famous quote is “There is never any question of what to paint only how to paint.”  Carswell’s practice is speculative and exploratory.  His mind at work reveals itself through the materials of the painting.  There are pencil lines beneath transparent layers of paint, or an abandoned stray mark, or the edge of one color plane peeking out from beneath another color plane.  The viewer gets the sense that his painting problems or concerns are being worked out right before one’s eyes.  There are no mental tricks, only visual generosity.  Susan Snodgrass states, “…it is Carswell’s unwavering belief in art as an act of individual scrutiny and contemplation that makes his abstract objects so personal and engaging.” (Art in America, Jan. 1994)


Rodney Carswell, Nov 30 (09) (2009). Oil on linen, 13” x 13”. Courtesy of Devening Projects + Editions © Rodney Carswell


Above all else, Carswell’s paintings are beautiful.  The sensual handling of colorful pigments and wax on linen or canvas, conjure the feeling of luscious skin.  The highly edited aesthetic forms, leaves what is essential and necessary, exalting mindfulness.  There is a visceral immediacy in the making of his paintings that is also inherent in his drawings, revealing the human touch and the presence of the artist as subject.

Grounded in the historical context of Abstract painting, Carswell has managed to keep the faith for over forty years.  During his early development, he attempted to create work which connected with historical patterns but at the same time remained distinctive.  Striving to maintain a relentless abstractness, he pushed his sense of the historical envelope.  As time passed, he became engaged with a sense of the individual subject, perhaps himself or the figure, embedded within a seemingly abstract/concrete object, making a connection with the historical investigation of the existential subject.  This has folded into his current endeavor where he is striving to make paintings, economically and expediently, not for lack of stamina or time but to bring abstract painting as close to his state of being fully cognizant of the moment as tenuously possible.


Rodney Carswell, May 3 (09) (2009). Oil on canvas, 11” x 11”. Courtesy of Devening Projects + Editions, © Rodney Carswell.


Rodney Carswell is an Artist-in-Residence at the Roswell Museum and Art Center (Roswell, NM), where his work is currently on view.


Michael Bill Smith is an emerging artist and recent graduate (MFA 2011) of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Residing in the sand dunes of Northwest Indiana, he is also an architect, art writer and collector.


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