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Monday, March 17, 2003


Buildings in Nature

Architectonic, Paul Caranicas, Bernarducci.Meisel.Gallery, January 30-March1, New York City

Although realist painting of the kind that Paul Caranicas practices is presently on the margins of contemporary art, it nonetheless maintains a place in our culture. The close realism we see in Caranicas’s works was highly regarded more than 30 years ago, in the late 1960s, when superrealism was a viable, respected means of communicating in art; despite the marked differences in their subject matter, for example, painters such as Richard Estes and Audrey Flack both relied upon techniques that represented the outside world as faithfully as a photograph (some critics named the movement “photorealism”). There was an emphasis on technical skill, as well as a more or less complete rejection of emotion, that made the paintings powerful, seemingly objective, statements that took into account the intricate imageries of surfaces in New York City, where the plate glass of corporate buildings and small stores reflected cars, passersby, and other structures. These vivid renderings of the city’s visual complexity were enhanced by their recognizability — viewers saw places they had been to and took pleasure in situating the building that had been painted.

The question remained, however, of just what was being brought to the table by these highly skilled, overwhelmingly urban offerings. If the paintings were entirely about the surfaces of things, it can hardly be argued that such a style ushered in a new way of seeing, let alone a new way of thinking. The pleasures of superrealism are mostly traditional in that the paintings reify the physical reality around us; they do not clamor for an elaborate reading so much as represent, in relatively simple terms, our environment just as it is. Whatever conceptual intelligence may be gleaned from this style of art stems from the implications of the objects themselves — Caranicas, for example, has spoken about the Second World War bunkers on the East Coast that were previously the subjects of his art: “the structures functioned as historical statements, much like the Mayan ruins or Aztec temples….Forgotten and abandoned, they were pitted against an encroaching vegetation, reminding us how far we’ve come — or haven’t. For anyone coming upon them, these monuments are echoes of the past.” For the artist, there is a resonance in the abandoned bunkers that he attempts to capture in his art; what he is most concerned with is the way the past is seen in these empty structures, their usefulness now expended, open to “encroaching vegetation.”

Caranicas has most recently taken on a new set of architectural structures, which address the notion of buildings in nature. This new series, entitled Architectonic, sets up a variety of subjects: the New York skyline at night; a study of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, also depicted at night; and an aerial view of the Ford Motor Factory in Dearborn, Michigan. In these and other paintings, Caranicas takes care to portray the relationship between the ubiquity of manmade structures and the overarching quality of nature, impossible to ignore even when crowded into the background by the buildings of people. The different sites he represents are reminders to the audience that it is impossible to turn away from nature, which is everywhere and so must be taken as a given, an element full in keeping with the houses he paints. In New Yorker (2002), a view of New York’s midtown at night, the blue-black of the evening is illuminated by lights in buildings and a moon painted on the upper right; Caranicas expertly captures the hazy glow of the city’s atmosphere, which contrasts brilliantly with the heavy felt of the dark sky. In many ways, the imagery in this painting, like that of others in this series, is self-sufficient unto itself.

In Noir X (Times Square) (2002), manmade structures — buildings and signage — take over most of the composition, with a bit of sky at the top and middle of the painting. There is a feeling of claustrophobia in this work, in which rounded walls and rows of windows take up space and press down on the viewer’s consciousness. And in Downtown New York (2002), one sees the city’s skyline in the distance, with two trees up front framing a big bush in the middle of the painting. The green foliage acts as a foil to the cityscape, which is painted far away from the perspective of the trees in the park. The contrast between the natural scenery and the regular right angles of the buildings makes for an extended comparison of kinds of beauty, as well as of the complicated relationship between works of nature and works of people. Unlike the painting Noir X (Times Square), which shows only the manmade, neither nature nor culture really dominates Downtown New York. The two realms appear to sit side by side, ostensibly establishing a dialogue whereby nature brings into focus those structures pieced together by human hands.

In Aerial II (1950) Ford Motor Factory, Dearborn, MI (1992), Caranicas offers his audience an aerial view of a wasteland as impressive in its vastness as it is troubling in its ecological desolation. It is a huge dirt landscape, with a row of barracks in the middle of the composition. Tall chimneys belching smoke punctuate the view; the dirt-brown scenario is William Blake’s “satanic mills” come true. Here is a case in which nature has been attacked, leaving little in the way of solace. The painting is not so much a report as a warning, however impressive the expression of raw power might be. Caranicas doesn’t edit or skew his art to exact a particular kind of comment; he prefers the directness of what he sees to the rhetoric of what he would like to experience. So he is relatively neutral in his portrayal of the world; his synthesis of natural and cultivated elements feels more like reportage than praise.

In the large painting, Noir Time II (Fallingwater) (1998), the artist once again sets up a relationship between the manmade and natural. Fallingwater is, of course, the famous home built by Frank Lloyd Wright that incorporates a waterfall into its actual structure. Sitting on top of the falling water, the home is bathed in the artificial glow of houselights on at night. Perhaps to add a note of mystery, Caranicas has included three figures, two of them unclothed, standing in different parts of the building. While the magnificence of the home is the ostensible subject of the painting, there is a ghostly presence throughout the composition, making the image appear mysterious, even given over to a bit of menace. The light within only serves to accentuate the darkness surrounding the house, and its physical placement above the rocks and water echoes Caranicas’s general theme, namely, that a dialogue exists between the environment and what is built. For all of Caranicas’s directness as an artist, he is also portraying a nature that is partially enigmatic, not fully known. Indeed, the feeling of natural enigma is especially strong when he appears to concentrate on the city or on an individual home; the sense of environment in his paintings is never extinguished. Caranicas’s art is most effective in its suggested contrasts, whereby the natural and the manmade play off of each other in a mutual comparison of form.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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