Art is not some romantic adventure, but a calling that involves sacrifice, hardship and sometimes, indignity. The local artist and teacher Richard Carlyon not only accepted that mantra, he embraced it.
In 2009, the last time there was a Carlyon retrospective, it took four galleries — Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery, 1708 Gallery, Reynolds Gallery and the Visual Arts Center — to house a representative showing of his work.
As with those exhibitions, the challenges of what to display for "Richard Carlyon: a Network of Possibilities," currently at Reynolds Gallery, meant choosing what best reflected his astonishing development over a half century, during which his early art morphed from a deeply colored expressionist style to the minimal and conceptual style of his later years.
"I spent five months looking at hundreds and hundreds of his works, letting it percolate and then filtering out what I needed to," explains curator Ashley Kistler, whose objectives changed as she worked through the art. "I wanted to give a taste of 50 years of work, but also bring out as many big paintings as possible. There's so much more that could be shown."
The late Bev Reynolds was an early and ongoing supporter of Carlyon's work from the beginning, holding multiple exhibitions over the years.
"Even though some of these were painted in the '70s and '80s, they still feel current today," says Reynolds co-director Julia Monroe. "Some haven't been shown since the '70s, so it's a good time to pull them out and remind the city how wonderful they are."
Early untitled works from the '60s show Carlyon paring down everyday objects, such as coats and jackets, to their geometric components as he develops an abstract visual language. For longtime fans of Carlyon's work, they'll be particularly satisfying since they've not been shown before.
By the '70s, the artist was working on large minimalist paintings based on simple rectangular shapes and lines. "Passage to India" from 1975 is one of the most vibrant examples from that period, a painting built from 20 to 30 layers of subtly different red hues resulting, Kistler says, in a flattening of the surface. "He uses minimal scaffolding with bands of contrasting color. It's just amazing."
- “Passage to India,” 1975 Liquitex and acrylic polymer emulsion on canvas.
A nearby video screen displays "Red Again" from 1989, in which Carlyon filmed himself painstakingly building up the colors of a large canvas. It's nothing short of a performance, which is hardly surprising for a man who'd studied modern dance for a physical education credit at Richmond Professional Institute and discovered he was very good at it.
By the early '80s, he'd broken from traditional use of a single, symmetrical panel to works that encompassed two or more panels and started on a series in which he experimented with a certain set of geometric form and color options. The rarely seen three panels of "Signal IX (Tri-Splice for Yvonne Ranier)," one of a series dedicated to different choreographers, represents his break from single panels. "Screen III: for Marshall McLuhan" shows his experimentation with form and color as part of a six-canvas series of gray-on-gray works using bars and rectangles.
"Dance and choreography enter into his work in so many ways," says Kistler, referring not just to his painting, but to the many dance events he helped arrange on campus while teaching at VCU.
By the '90s, Carlyon had returned to drawing and collage with works such as "Citing V: Guilty Pleasures. As Shown" feel almost mischievous as he disrupts the conversation with the viewer by drawing a hangman over a paragraph that begins, "Screwing a Musician, Eh?" and ends with, "Speaking of which, what's your guilty pleasure?"
Passionate about paying attention to his surroundings, Carlyon allowed his observations to inform his art and his life. Whether teaching or making art, Kistler says he was a vital force in Richmond's art scene throughout his life.
Everyone who knew him has a story about him.
"Bev took a contemporary art history class with Richard," recalls Alice Livingston, Reynolds' daughter and co-director of the gallery. "He was the one who made her feel like it was going to be all right to put down roots in Richmond." S
"Richard Carlyon: a Network of Possibilities" through March 9 at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St. reynoldsgallery.com. Cabell Library holds a program and art show about the acquisition of Carlyon's papers and digital works Feb. 8 at 5:30 p.m.