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Looking Back

Retrospectives of two local professors remind us of the overlooked in our midst.


Barbara Tisserat's Powerful Silence

Tisserat's delicate imagery looks deceptively light in weight and spirit. Yet there is a pungency to her lithographs that grounds them conceptually if not visually. Like her colleague Carlyon, Tisserat is one of many VCU art professors who teach and make art with equal amounts of devotion and excellence, but sometimes with little notice outside of academia. Now her work is finally celebrated in the manner it deserves.

As the Visual Arts Center's retrospective "Lessons: 30 Years of Printmaking" demonstrates, Tisserat's imagery has taken a few turns during the past 30 years. (Her current work is on view at Reynolds Gallery.) But the one thing that has remained constant, and the first thing viewers may notice, is the alliance she creates between found images and images she draws or paints herself and the hypnotic emptiness of clean, blank paper.

What's important is her treatment of paper — her reverence for its visual and material qualities, the degree to which she keeps it clear of unintentional smears or stains, the restraint of intentional marks that seem to represent a conceptual baseline of openness and possibility. Her beautiful sheets, often cast in warm tones, aren't just a physical support for her images. Sometimes they're like soil in which the images root and grow. Other times they are like beds of newly fallen snow on which her images softly fall.

The discipline that has helped shape Tisserat into a master lithographer extends from her technical expertise into her artistic expression. Like a Chinese calligrapher, she ritualistically executes each step of her process while remaining attentive to nuance. Her habit of measuring and weighing each gesture not only ensures that each is structurally significant but allows the ideas behind the images to take hold.

Tisserat often uses borrowed words, illustrations and diagrams from sources of supposed authority, such as dictionaries and how-to drawing books, to dominate her images. Her underhanded modifications form an outward appearance of delicacy, even passivity; yet prolonged study reveals a force behind her reserve. Placing each element and each mark on the pristine sheets like bread crumbs on snow, she suggests paths for visual and mental experiences.

Consistently pitting deadpan graphic imagery against ambiguous subject matter, Tisserat plays with patterns of thinking in much the same way that Carlyon does, but without involving the element of chance. In a print from her series "Lessons," produced in the late '80s, she employs a found image of a pointing dog. Tisserat overlaps the picture — a simple and earnest illustration that could be derived from a dated source — with a mirrored image of itself and attaches a stick where one might imagine the image's pivot point to be. Playfully suggestive of movement and toys, the print seems to represent how adroitly the artist mines a quarry of one-liners to produce a multidimensional world of her own.

Dancing With Richard Carlyon

Carlyon is a visual artist who often uses words, sounds and moving images as source material. Inspired by the composer John Cage's use of chance as a means for discovering new patterns of sound, he invents visual rhythms meant to guide alternate paths of discovery.

To the uninitiated, Carlyon's art may cause a moment of consternation. His hybrid compositions don't play to those looking for easy enjoyment unless the viewer is willing to throw caution and preconception to the wind. It would seem that Carlyon, a cultural treasure who has made waves in academia and the visual arts community, has been trying to tell us something about caution for more than 50 years. Reynolds Gallery's show of selected work by the artist demonstrates his persistence.

It's an artist's job to pull the familiar out of its context to find a new way to experience it. Picasso defied the limits of a two-dimensional canvas by painting multiple views of a figure in one image. Carlyon ignores the limits of reason by re-engineering visual patterns. His disregard can be liberating to those looking for formal freshness, but those wanting to "read" the patterns will find the task impossible. For one thing, Carlyon's reshuffled reality unfolds so quickly before the viewers' eyes that finding a recognizable language is difficult even for the most lucid eye. His objective is to form new pathways to experience, to get away from habits — a heady yet playful pursuit in Carlyon's mind.

Rhythm is key to this work, and here it varies from minimal monotone geometric painting to lyrical drawings to staccato video work. Selected paintings executed during the '80s softly pulse next to the livelier rhythms of his drawings and videos. Some distill specific scenes into simple geometries. A seascape as seen from an ocean-front room and an interior illuminated by a cool light of a television inspire compositions of horizontals and verticals in limited palettes. Others seem to urge the viewer to see the parts as movable pieces meant for "manipulation" by the mind's eye.

In contrast to the quiet reverberations suggested by Carlyon's minimal paintings is the slap-happy chatter of his recent drawings. Elegantly crafted in ink on vellum, they each frame types of "conversations" with written words, sign language, diagrams and free-form gestures — all of which crowd to the surface of the vellum as if magnetically charged. Vaguely suggesting that a reading is possible, yet denying linear logic, the images still seem weighted with meaning yet to be deciphered. Yet what they mean to insinuate is not a potential for translation but the possibility for some mental traveling that draws on all areas of experience, not just visual.

Bridging these two bodies of work is his video "tilt" in which Carlyon edits borrowed movie clips to make a stream of repeated movements and sounds. Over and over again doors open and shut and figures climb up and down stairs while moments of accompanying sound tracks replay with percussive snap. Simultaneously a performance of sound and dance, it epitomizes Carlyon's ongoing pursuit of new journeys via fancy footwork.

Once a serious dancer himself, Carlyon has no doubt defied gravity and traveled at unlikely speeds or by unlikely means, contorted and balanced. That experience obviously has shaped his art. What some may not know is that dancing — mental dancing really — is what he asks of his audience too. S

"Lessons: 30 Years of Printmaking" is at the Visual Arts Center. "Barbara Tisserat: Recent Work" and "Richard Carlyon: Selected Work" are both at the Reynolds Gallery. All shows run through Dec. 23.

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