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More of Less

Reynolds Gallery gives us a little of Richard Carlyon's work, which does a lot with a little anyway.

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. It's startling, but refreshingly so, to enter the first floor of the Reynolds Gallery and be confronted by 25 works of the late Richmond artist Richard Carlyon (1930-2006).

While this show could be considered a mini-retrospective of the last quarter century of his brilliant and prolific career (an ambitious, multisite retrospective is being planned for autumn 2009), almost all the powerful pieces come across as of-the-moment. This is a testament to Carlyon's droll intellect, sophisticated eye and meticulous craftsmanship.

Why do these mostly minimalist pieces, some dating to 1975, look so contemporary? Carlyon wasn't interested in realism in a traditional sense. That was too obvious. Instead, he preferred to look for signs in the cracks, between the lines both visually and culturally: What wasn't immediately apparent fascinated him more than what was. In a 1982 essay he wrote that among the things he found fascinating -- what informed his work -- were "the spaces between aisle ways in dark theaters," "barren bulletin boards" and "newly plowed fields."

Therefore it is keen editing -- information omitted -- that makes Carlyon's work so fresh as well as challenging. But there is also quiet beauty and fits of irony and wit in his work. While many artists want to unload or give us too much information or too much color, Carlyon always holds back, sometimes mischievously so.

In a show that spans a quarter century, we also sense a restlessness and a desire to push, explore and produce something different. Among the range of pieces are large canvases whose radiantly colorful surfaces appear as if they were backlit. There are meticulously crafted ink drawings -- disciplined doodling, perhaps -- that exude the finesse of a Zen master. There are even self-portraits -- and implied self-portraits.A, 

Carlyon was clearly in tune with what was happening in the late-20th-century mainstream art world, though he seldom showed his work in larger markets. He devoted his life to teaching thousands of students from 1955 to 1996 at Richmond Professional Institute and later at Virginia Commonwealth University and working quietly in his studio.
This summer sampler of works by a Richmond modern master sets a fascinating stage for next year's full-scale Carlyon retrospective. S

"Richard Carlyon (1930-2006): Selected Paintings and Works on Paper" runs through July at the Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St. 355-6553.

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