The Arts

Playful and Perplexing: Then & Now: Robert Cartmell

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Playful and Perplexing: Then & Now: Robert Cartmell

Then & Now: Robert Cartmell is the latest edition of Albany Center Gallery’s annual Then & Now series, which presents work by artists who have previously shown at the gallery and whose careers have made a significant contribution to the local community. As Professor Emeritus of Art at the State University of New York at Albany, Cartmell certainly fits the bill, and the retrospective provides a fascinating look at Cartmell’s decades-long career as a printmaker, painter, and innovator.

Degas was obsessed with ballerinas, Picasso was obsessed with bullfighting, Cartmell is obsessed with roller coasters. In 1975, the artist developed a show for the Smithsonian Institution titled Coast to Coast Coasters, which travelled to 75 different venues across the country. He published articles about coasters in the Albany Times Union and the New York Times, and in the mid-’80s, his book The Incredible Scream Machine: A History of the Roller Coaster was released by Amusement Park Books / Bowling Green State University Popular Press. During that time, Cartmell became one of the country’s leading roller coaster experts, but his interest in the old coaster structures wasn’t just academic – throughout his career, these same coasters appeared again and again in his paintings, prints, and sketches. This exhibition contains numerous examples of Cartmell’s interest in the subject. Sometimes the cross-hatched bracing and the swooping tracks are almost hidden, while other times, like “Derailment II” or “Julie’s Playground,” they are prominently featured.   

As Albany Center Gallery notes in the exhibition description, Cartmell “views amusement parks ‘like a theater. And you have a whole range of emotions – from people being giddily happy to real terror…’ Cartmell attests that roller coasters are symbolic of the ups and downs of life, deploying them as a metaphor to demonstrate the risks and excitement we experience in everyday life.”

But don’t let me give the impression that this exhibition is just non-stop coasters. Then & Now: Robert Cartmell showcases more than 50 drawings, paintings, and prints that span Cartmell’s four decade career, and there’s a wide variety of work on display, including pencil, acrylic, mixed media, color intaglio, collograph, and lithograph. In addition to the Comet, the Cyclone, and other roller coasters, Cartmell’s work, which falls in the realm of neo-expressionism or figurative expressionism, features (and returns to) horses, rings, crescents, children, and even Lady Godiva. “Cartmell embraces a theme-and-variation routine in his artistic practice, creating groups of work focused on imagery including roller coasters, carousel horse, brass rings, childlike figures, twin, and artist studios,” Tony Iadicicco, director of the Albany Center Gallery, writes. “His skilled use of repetition, pattern, and parallel lines stand out in his work regardless of subject matter, indicative of the musical influence in his life.”

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Cartmell’s printmaking expertise is prominently displayed. Early work like “Brink’s Vault II” (1972), which is color intaglio, and “Kittyhawk” (1972), which is lithograph on Mylar, show his early vision and skill. He received his BFA from the University of Chicago after two years stationed in Japan. After graduating, he received a prestigious fellowship that allowed him to travel to 14 countries over two years. As Albany Center Gallery notes, “while in Florence, he discovered the work of Mauricio Lasansky, considered to be one of the fathers of 20th Century American printmaking.” Cartmell later enrolled in the Printmaking MA/MFA program at the University of Iowa, where he studied with Lasansky and even became Lasansky’s graduate assistant. After Iowa, Cartmell arrived at the University at Albany.  

The most visually-arresting works in the exhibition are Cartmell’s acrylic glass transfers, a process that requires the artist to work backward like printmaking by layering in the foreground first and background last before transferring. Albany Center Gallery notes that this is “Cartmell’s signature, self-invented painting technique.”

Works such as “Bribe II,” “Self Portrait,” “Gray Palisades,” and “Red Bell” are rich, deep, and striking. On the University Art Museum’s website, Cartmell writes about the process: “A great deal of music consist of layered voices, the polyphony that so intrigued Paul Klee. I can achieve the layered look in acrylic glass transfer painting with line spinning, floating, and ‘enclosing’ on top of carefully calculated paint. Working from front (foreground) to back (background) opens the door to such ideas.” There are several examples at the Albany Center Gallery, and they are each bold, vibrant, layered, and like much of Cartmell’s work, they are both playful and perplexing.

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The day I was in the gallery, one casual visitor noted that some of the work reminded him of Picasso, which is often a starting point for viewers who are looking to draw connections to figurative expressionism, but Cartmell’s influences extend beyond Picasso’s cubism to Philip Guston and, in my mind, George McNeil. To borrow from a catalogue essay by curator / writer Dan Cameron, Cartmell “works in a tradition that could be loosely connected to Philip Guston and other members of the so-called second generation New York School, who preferred a more lyrical variation on the blood-and-guts formula of abstract expressionism.”  

The gallery pairs work that speaks to one another, they balance the walls and the viewing experience, or relate in mood or subject matter. Some of the pairings are particularly insightful, such as the acrylic “Artist Under the Table” and its accompanying colored pencil study of the same name, which allows the viewer to peer into the artist’s process and see how the composition and emotional intensity shifted from planning to finished piece. Other examples of meaningful grouping include “Dark Sunset” and “Bribe II,” which seem to reflect the same sort of mood and broodiness, and reinforce the subjective perspective. In short, there’s a lot to admire and a lot to discover in the exhibition and its curation.    

What is it about roller coasters, amusement parks, and carousels that hold our attention? Is it childhood nostalgia? Is it playfulness? I left the gallery asking myself those questions. In the end, Cartmell’s work – coasters and non-coasters – traffics that fine line between play and danger, excitement and risk. With his abstract style, he captures the emotional content in a way that resonates, and Albany Center Gallery captures the energy, excitement, and intensity of the work as a whole. It’s a fine show, and one to spend some time admiring before it comes down on October 21. I’ll never look at The Comet the same again.

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