Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Tectonic: The Quantum Paintings of Curtis Cutshaw

Stream by Curtis Cutshaw. (Oil Enamel, Earth and Rust on Multiple Birch Panels, 2016)

“We are gazing at the solemn geography of human limits.”  Paul Eluard

There is an undeniable elegiac quality to the elegant and enigmatic paintings of Curtis Cutshaw, a Calgary-based artist whose work over the last fifteen years has followed a deep and discernible trajectory exploring an organic interior dimension which is at once compelling for the heart and captivating for the eye. When he first began being represented by the Jennifer Kostuik Gallery in 2000, he was already investigating a hidden realm of seed-like forms and spore-like structures, through an almost mystical presentation of their patterns and formations. These early works seemed to hover in a shadowy neon domain, a powerfully theatrical stage set within which curtains of pure matter were being pulled aside to spectacularly reveal their atomic identities, often with the optical drama of scientific slides, providing us a glimpse of what takes place inside matter itself: they appeared to portray the secret life of energy. Even back then he was clearly establishing himself as a master of both physical depiction and metaphysical reflection, and as a purveyor of quantum paintings par excellence.

Subsequent bodies of work, leading up to his exceptionally beautiful Dowsing Rod series and his sometimes heartbreakingly poetic Levels And Construct series, have continued to develop a highly personal vernacular and visual language which demonstrate a continuity rare in today’s world of abrupt shape shifts and content contortions. This could be, among other reasons, because of a deeply felt belief in what we can only call the spiritual calling concealed in the apparently physical act of painting and constructing images, a belief summed up for me quite succinctly in the following observation by the artist himself: “I believe paintings are answers for which no question has been asked.” This also means that every visual answer not only is somewhat existential by its very nature but also contains a secret interrogative, another question for a future artist to confront with yet another unasked answer. Perhaps this is also what the great American abstract painter Clyfford Still meant when he declared that “No painting stops with itself, or is complete in and of itself. It is a continuation of all previous paintings and is renewed in all successive ones.”

Tower, Curtis Cutshaw. (Archival Inkjet Print, 2012)
The elegiac quality I refer to is not merely the result of the disintegrating fibrous strands of his Blindspot dowsing pieces, which began as drawings and evolved technologically into amplified luminosities such as the grand Construct or glowing Tower large-scale print works, and which resemble automatic drawings executed on quantum strings of elemental purity. That elegiac quality is also not necessarily just captured in the gracefully distressed surfaces or touching tenderness of the organic fissures and striations of his birch wood panel assemblages such as Chance or Contour, both from his recent Levels And Construct body of subtle works featuring almost monochrome oil enamel, earth and rust in multiple layers and sections. It is certainly and clearly suggested in a primal, even primeval, manner in these principal examples, especially with the classically modernist painterly stance they appear to assume  their conceptual posture, one might say. But while essential to their basic charm, and seeming to accumulate through the slow accretion of time itself, more importantly his overall work also feels like an elegy to the art of painting per se.

They feel like paintings which actually ponder what it means to be a painting in the 21st century, and by doing so they also bring us all the way back to the almost mythical origins of painting in roughly the 14th century, the magic of handmade marks with pigment on a shimmering textile or plaster curtain, serving as a magic mirror confronting the world before it. They remind us also that painting in the age of technics, and especially of digital reproduction, can often feel like a furtive medium emotionally evading the shadow of the machine. Cutshaw, in addition to demonstrating a continued commitment to the art of drawing and printmaking in a direct dialogue with painting, has also used this elegiac quality to his advantage by fully embracing its inherent melancholy while also accepting technology into his studio for a thought-provoking conversation among mind, hand, surface, lens, light and image. All of us meanwhile have the benefit of overhearing this ongoing conversation between painting and history, a palpable discussion between art and technics, and each piece is a moment of this exchange, one we listen to with our eyes.

Over the years, his shift in focus or motif has not resulted in a shift of either meaning or intention, however, and it strikes me that his primary stylistic development has been from an emphasis on the microscopic to the macroscopic realms. The Dowsing Rod drawings, and the large-format experimental prints which evolved from them, were essentially about increasing our access to an invisible quantum world too tiny and minute to even be perceived with the naked eye, to elevate and invite this quantum domain up into the light of our world through a drastic enlargement of their scale of image and scope of vision.

Close Call Version 2 by Curtis Cutshaw. (Archival Inkjet Print, 2012)

This body of work grew from the artist’s interest in creating a distance between the conscious mind of the maker transmitting a visual message and the surface of the receiving vessel which collects and conveys it. They were about contemplating technical perfection and the removal of control and touch by the intervening agency of the artist. Painters as diverse as Henri Matisse and Brice Marden have expressed a similar shared interest in utilizing extensions of the hand in the form of sticks and branches to free their gestures of complete control.

A decade ago, while visiting a rural location, the artist explained to a friend the purpose of dowsing rods laying discarded on a porch, and by expressing the fact that they were low-tech hand-held metal tools used in the search for underground water, he became fascinated with the prospect of using the technique and the tools for making images. Ostensibly turning himself into a kind of seismograph by attaching a string and pen to the end of the rod, over the following months he produced thousands of such drawings, refining the method until it produced an image that connected mentally and emotionally as a usable motif. What served as a breakthrough of sorts was the realization that by drastically enlarging them digitally some secret interior kingdom could be unearthed, and it was: the subsequent prints suddenly revealed themselves to be a hybrid and linking bridge between his drawing practice, which had always been pronounced by over twenty years of activity, and his painting practice, which was just then nearly ready to embark on another evolutionary leap into what I call the macroscopic realm.

Both Close Call and Plane Ridge are evocative of structure strands of DNA and chromosomes, the threadlike building blocks of nucleic acids and protein found in the nucleus of most living cells carrying genetic information. This is obviously the micro-zone which is so gorgeously depicted by allowing the aleatory events of surface decay and image breakdown to occur in the digital enlargement process leading to these lovely archival prints. They clearly illustrate an interior landscape of sorts, a bloodscape if you will, which hovers inside us and every other organic life form around us.

By thinking about his latest body of work as a macroscope, I mean the capturing and communicating of form, content, and images which are too gigantic, huge and immense to be perceived by us in any kind of entirety, precisely the opposite of the tiny kingdoms he birthed in his dowsing drawings and prints. In this case, it is something akin to massive tectonic plates, rock and metal sedimentary formations that make up the hidden structure of the earth itself. In addition to subtly referencing the flat fields of the grassy prairie landscape, ironically the wedged shapes that assemble into the puzzle-like panel formations of his Levels And Construct series might also bear an uncanny resemblance to the Precambrian shield of stone that lies beneath a large part of the North American continent. This massive area of both exposed and concealed igneous and high-grade metamorphic rock is the very foundation of the geological core of the tectonic theatre upon which our landscapes are supported and presented to us. They are, in effect, the cellular structure of something too big to be grasped in its entirety and must be approached in segmented component parts in order to be appreciated in all their grandeur. These piece may very well be considered macroscopes.

Survey by Curtis Cutshaw. (Oil Enamel, Earth and Rust on Multiple Birch Panels, 2015)

The vistas of Survey, for instance, with its rising or falling grid portion suggesting a tectonic eruption event, are therefore perhaps best conceived as aerial-view diagrams of an impossibly large but interlocking puzzle made of molten time, slowed down to its most accessible and momentarily solid forms: the graceful and mostly submerged skeletal crust known as the continental craton. These works also similarly depict building blocks of an enormous grandeur and monumental scale, plates which perhaps, to my eye and imagination at any rate, make up the massive protein formations of mountains pushed upward by internal global pressure. They too carry genetic information, of course, but over an incredibly long earthly duration whose glacial calendar virtually dwarfs our miniature life spans by comparison. And yet, comparing them is precisely what my eye is inclined to do, since both the Dowsing prints and the layered Levels And Construct assemblages appear to me to reference something which Albert Einstein was searching for in his late researches: the unified field theory, a designation by which he could harmonize the immensely huge forces of galactic scale gravitational patterns with the immensely tiny forces of sub-atomic quantum particles.

Einstein never did quite develop the equation that he was labouring over at Princeton in his later years. But luckily for us, we’re not looking for an equation per se; we don’t need to  we’ve found a complex set of painted images which actualizes those forces and equates them right before our eyes, and consequently also behind our eyes as well, where we dream of proportional harmony and yet we don’t need to look very far in order to find it. For me, his harmony of scale and intent is also about alchemy, the art of transformation, of growth patterns and movement through time. Since his works are invariably in a closely monitored and visually choreographed series, as serial images they are inevitably also rather cinematic, and not only as a sequential movement as a whole gestalt of filmic frames but even within a single piece of work within the overall series. And to my mind, the most majestic of these cinematic moments is to be found in his painting called Stream.

Apart from being visually arresting, viscerally gorgeous and a treat for the retina to savor, Stream is perhaps the most incisive and triumphant of the Levels And Construct series. Complex and contemplative, with nearly a hundred individual pieces of metaphysically mosaic segments, it is nonetheless jazzy and active, almost interactive in fact, with the viewer animating its multiple levels of meaning in a puzzling yet utterly satisfying way. This, in the end, is what it really means to be, as the poet Eluard put it so perfectly, gazing at the solemn geography of human limits. We are caught in a constantly flowing flux, between the limits of the too miniature and the limits of the too monumental. But considering the fact that we are caught, we are also liberated by our very gaze. Curtis Cutshaw produces maps of an interstitial territory, literally in between the two limit extremes within which we must invariably live our lives: he is a masterful cartographer of that geography.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called The Devil in Miss Jones: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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