John W. Carlson holds his palette self-portrait standing inside his ArtCraft Building studio.

John W. Carlson’s art unveils a uniquely gestural and gripping world

Story by Carlo Wolff
Photography by Michael C. Butz

Carlson’s workspace, including some of his monoprints hanging on the wall.

Carlson’s workspace, including some of his monoprints hanging on the wall.

The walls of John W. Carlson’s studio in the ArtCraft Building in Cleveland pulse with life. There are pictures of folks Carlson has extracted from the media. Some canvases depict people he knows, his vigorous artistry transforming them into images more emblematic than realistic. There are haunting blacks-and-whites; there’s color, too, as Carlson emerges into happiness.

There’s a painting in progress in his central work area, its background orange, its foreground four women; one, skirted where the others wear pants, stands off to the side. It evokes a shattered Greek chorus. It strikes memorable, sadly provocative poses. It’s both recessive and in your face; that’s Carlson’s dynamic.

“I think of it as the definition of haiku, which is sudden awareness of beauty by the meeting of opposite or incongruous terms,” he says of his art. “It’s achieved through gesture,” he adds, sculpting the air with his hands.

“I’m all about the gesture, and I think within the gesture there’s an emotional component. One viewer might look at it as a dangerous gesture and take the emotional content with that, whereas another person might see it as a more benign gesture and respond to it with a different emotion.”

Carlson talks of “striking a match,” of “breaking a space” in his head. He aims to interrupt the viewer’s flow, demanding a new kind of engagement. Perhaps that’s why his paintings, dominated by the human shape, pop so strongly despite a purposeful lack of definition. They have the immediacy of a news bulletin, leaving interpretation up to the viewer.

“I don’t want them to walk away in the standard three seconds; I’d like them to be able to experience an emotion they may never have,” he says.

Carlson throttles the viewer through recontextualization, plundering what he sees on the street and what he screens and reads for images to embed in his paintings. It’s up to the viewer to answer the questions of identity and emotion that he raises.

He points to a painting called “In the Afternoon.” The man looks as if he has fallen off a bed or been abandoned on the street. His head has no facial features, a regular in Carlson’s work. Is he resting or dead? The somber, black-and-white painting suggests that “ambiguity” could be Carlson’s middle name.

“One of my collectors referred to one of my works as ‘beautifully disturbing,’ and that’s a loaded comment. I loved it,” Carlson says.

“To be disturbed doesn’t have to be, ‘Oh, I saw a baby on the railroad tracks.’ It doesn’t have to be this bad thing,” he continues. “A lot of words take on connotations more heavily toward one side than the other; like my poet friend said, ‘If I had to say the one word that encapsulates your work, I’d say tension.’ Ugliness can be beautiful, and tension isn’t always Excedrin headache No. 52. Tension keeps the viewer engaged.”

Garbage and guitars

“In the Afternoon,” 30x40 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

“In the Afternoon,” 30×40 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

The second oldest of five brothers, Carlson is the son of a former millwright at General Motors and a stay-at-home mother. His parents always encouraged his artistic ambitions, and small books about classical painters that a priest brought to the Carlson home in Ashtabula kindled young Carlson’s artistic flame.

“There was one on El Greco, one on Fra Angelico, Raphael,” he recalls. “I just pored over those books, visually memorized the paintings in them. They just had a huge (impact), like the striking of the match of me really wanting to make things like that. I don’t know how else to explain the significance, the joy I got from those books.”

Carlson, who cites influences such as Egon Schiele and Franz Kline, began his artistic career by studying a book on how to draw horses, creating work that drew on equestrian art by the French masters Edgar Degas and Theodore Gericault.

Carlson inhaled art daily in Catholic schools in Ashtabula, and then spent a year and a half studying at the long-defunct Cooper School of Art in Cleveland.

Meanwhile, as he pursued his gritty, figurative muse, he worked at jobs that allowed him to provide for his family.

“The lion’s share of my working career was working for the city of Ashtabula, first off as a garbage man, a job I thoroughly enjoyed,” he says. “I loved knowing where every street in the city was, I loved knowing that Mrs. Smith would always put a couple of bottles of beer next to the can for us.”

The camaraderie was great; so was coming across the occasional treasure, like old 78-rpm records. But in the mid-’80s, tired of having to bend over every five or six yards, Carlson went to work in the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Life was tricky for a man balancing domestic responsibilities with boundless creative drive. Turns out painting isn’t Carlson’s only artistic talent. He’s a rock ’n’ roller.

Between 1976 and 1987, Carlson, who looks like he stepped off a new wave album cover, played guitar in bands such as Wildlife, The F-100s, Bridgestreet and the Execs; the last even recorded an EP at Kirk Yano’s After Hours Studios.

Carlson did no painting during that span, though he designed some band posters. He still picks up the guitar every day. But he never made the leap to a musical career because that “would have required me to quit my job,” he says.

“I knew in my heart of hearts if you really want to be like the bands you want to emulate, you have to go on the road and put all your energies into it. You don’t do that with a 9-to-5 job.”

Or while you’re raising a family, including two boys from the second of his three marriages. One, Ryan, lost his life to drugs five years ago. Ryan was 26. “My Grief,” a powerful oil-and-charcoal self-portrait he produced two years ago that now rests atop a bookcase in his studio, attests to the depth of Carlson’s sadness.

Art had to wait until it was all he had – and wanted – to do.

That time came in 2005, when having earned enough to retire early, Carlson embarked on his second, profoundly artistic career.

Contemporary Carlson

“Little One,” 36x28 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

“Little One,” 36×28 inches, oil and charcoal on canvas; image courtesy of the artist.

Today, the 61-year-old Carlson lives in Lakewood, and one of his works – a charcoal drawing entitled “Viewpoint” – lives at the Erie Art Museum as part of its permanent collection.

Several works are at home in his studio. “Car,” an oil painting of a round-shouldered 1940s automobile, looks like it’s about to be consumed by fire. “Rescue” depicts a girl, hair wild and expression despairing, pushing through a kind of yellow storm. With full frontal foreground and suggestive background, Carlson’s paintings, which sell for $250 to $4,500, grip. That’s his intent.

Works in progress are at the heart of his studio space. There’s also a kind of anteroom with a sofa where this jazz lover with the rock ’n’ roll hair can groove to Yusef Lateef, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus.

Carlson reserves the long, narrow part of his Cleveland workplace for scores of paintings he’s made in the past decade-plus, slotted into bins against the wall. They speak to his prolificacy, work ethic and a love of art.

“John was the first nonphotographic/fine art artist who has exhibited at the Print Room,” says Shari Wilkins, owner of the Cleveland Print Room, a workshop and exhibition space dedicated to analog photography that neighbors Carlson’s studio in the ArtCraft Building. “I liked John’s work from the start because of its ability to evoke emotion along with an expression of cinematic quality that I appreciate.”

Carlson’s work, interwoven with Wilkins’ vernacular photography (or “found photography”) was displayed in the Print Room’s “Destruction of Form” show in July 2015. Those works also were on view earlier this year at BAYarts in Bay Village, at which Carlson teaches art courses.

Carlson also teaches at Valley Art Center, and recently opened the doors to his studio for a public tour, suggesting he’s as welcoming to artistic newcomers as fellow artists in Cleveland were to him when he emigrated from Ashtabula.

“I felt welcomed when I first arrived here 10 years ago. I mean, warmly welcomed,” he says. “It was time to be a little fish in a big pond. I was a big deal in Ashtabula, as far as that goes. They picked one of my pieces to be the cover of the Ashtabula County Visitors’ Guide.”

Now, Carlson eyes an even bigger pond: New York City.

In late March, one of his drawings, “Struggle,” was on view at Trygve Lie Gallery in NYC. It was part of the 2016 #TwitterArtExhibit, a show involving various artists and mixed media that showcases postcard art and benefits Foster Pride’s “Handmade” Program, which supports the creativity of young women in foster care.

Carlson uses such Big Apple opportunities to network. He considers a full-on New York showing of his work – as yet unrealized – the ultimate goal.

“That’s the holy grail.” CV

On view

“Point of View,” featuring new works by John W. Carlson, Sarah Curry, Brian Mouhlas and Douglas Max Utter, will be on view from July 15 through Sept. 16 at HEDGE Gallery, which represents Carlson, at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland. A solo Carlson show is scheduled for May 2017 at the Massillon Museum of Art.

 Lead image: John W. Carlson holds his palette self-portrait standing inside his ArtCraft Building studio.