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Biography: Carson C.T. Collins

Biographical details can be found in the reviews which are included here, especially the long, scholarly one by Mr. Kevin Costello. It's entitled, "The Littoralist Paintings etc." "Twilight Seas", by Thom Elkjer, is an easier read. The "Interview" is also short, informative, and more recent. This stuff is colorful, entertaining, and, In my estimation,

its irrelevant. THE WORK SHOULD SPEAK FOR ITSELF. Our experience of a work of art should never be tainted by any reaction to the circumstances, conduct, or personality of the artist, however sordid or saintly they may have been.

Carson C.T. Collins


The Littoralist Paintings of Carson Collins

The Painter
It is evident when engaged in conversation with the painter Carson Collins that one is discussing issues with a warm and literate man. The subject of his art is the four elements>/b> in their most majestic setting - the shoreline: earth, air, fire, and water. The artist has at one and the same time an ebullient nature and the ‘gravitas’ of original introspection. Tall and of large trim frame, his bearing strikes one as being in stark contrast to the fragile glazed surfaces and delicate analogous tonalities of color to be seen in his seascape paintings.
Of his personal history he will tell you that he is of Irish and Cherokee ancestry and that he was born on the 25th November 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the family relocating to Longboat Key Florida in 1958. With pride he will describe his mother who holds a Masters degree in art education and who home schooled her son in the techniques of painting in oil and water color before he was ten years old.
When reminiscing about his father, his speech slows down, his eyes narrow, and his large frame becomes restive and curved. He will tell you that his father received a full disability pension from the army, after which he became a lawyer, who due to his severe injuries in WW II remained mentally in that conflict for the rest of his life.
As for the artist himself, the Vietnam war affected his life. The fact that he had been drafted interrupted his plans to study art at university and redirected for a brief time his artistic ambitions to those of medicine. After high school, Collins received B.A. degrees in psychology and chemistry at the University of South Florida at Tampa in 1973. Four years later he received his M.D. from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. “I never did my internship but in 1978 quit allopathic practice in order to concentrate on painting full-time.”
A passionate traveler, he has since painted in Mauritius in view of the Indian Ocean, the Stockholm Archipelligo in the Baltic Sea, St. Barthelemy in the West Indes, Honolulu, Manhattan and most recently, Costa Rica, Central America. Throughout his travels the relationship of the sky to the sea in his “Ocean Series” has been the central motif of his painting. The first paintings of The Ocean Series began on St. Barthelemy in 1978, the concept being a focused space into which his mythopoeic imagination has poured its colors.
In a more precise and unconscious way, this singularity of motif reflects a truism of all serious painting, that the choice of subject attempts to resolve the psychological dynamics of the artist’s philosophical preferences. In the case of Collins, this dynamic must also include his wanderlust. His art is a sincere and authentic objectification of his response to this dynamic and the emotional paradigms that ensue. His seascapes are delicately painted and deceptively reductive paens to littoral patterns; used to sublimate anxiety and to celebrate self-renewal in equal measure.

The Paintings

A formal analysis of Collins’ paintings must be predicated on an “a priori” analytical distinction. In Western art two different, though inclusive, intentions exist. The first is to define an art that wills its way through the eyes into the heart. Such art is called retinal art. The second wills its way into the mind. Such art is called non-retinal art. All art has both intentions at play. The issue of degree and dominance of one over the other is a variable, due to historical period and the artist’s essence. Whether the art is retinal or non-retinal, the artist’s intention is to give depth to the emotional experience of the observer. What differs is emphasis! Expressionist art relies as much on experience as it does subject matter, whereas various forms of classicism tend toward etherial concepts of timeless forms. Such art addresses pure concepts in abstract uses of line and color. The idiosyncracies of the artist are de-emphasized in the service of classic restraint.
Collins’ paintings’ poetic feel is in large part due to the fluid transparency between these two positions. His color and brushstroke devices have precedent in the paintings of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1851). For example the vortex of white, yellow, and orange in Turner’s “Light and Color” 1843 (Tate Gallery, London) in which Turner utilizes the color theories of the German poet Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832), wherein red is at the top and green at the bottom of the poet’s chromatic circle. Collins is in many ways a spiritual descendant of this emperical romantic approach to color. Claude Monet (1840 - 1926) the French Impressionist painter living in London during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 - 71, accompanied by fellow artist Camille Pissarro (1830 - 1903), came into contact with Turner’s paintings. Although this introduction shows no clear sign of influence on the Frenchman, other than an appreciation for fluid blends of color, one does see in the case of Monet an appreciation for subsuming subject matter to the act of painting as a thing in itself. Such can be traced back to examples of early 19th century English landscape painting. Indeed in a letter to Wynford Dewhurst (Nov. 1902) Pissarro writes,”The watercolors and painting of Turner and Constable, the canvasses of Old Chrome, have certainly had an influence on us.” (1)
This is the organic and romantic aspect of Collins’ art. However, the geometrical structure and close attention to analogous color, heightened by the use of a split-complimentary, can be closely related to the theories of American ( German - born) Bauhaus painter Joseph Albers (1888 - 1976) whose famous series of paintings and lithographs based on the square exploited subtle chromatic harmonies. Jack Burnham has noted, “In all of his (Albers’) “Homage to the Square” series, variables are reduced to one color relationship. The “art” of Albers’ paintings stem from two criteria. Its compositional symplicity through concentric squares relates it to the field paintings of Barnett Newman (1905 - 70), Mark Rothko (1903 -70), and Kenneth Noland (1924 - ).”
These painters have a “formal similarity” which “ is a lack of asymmetrical, unbalanced forms operating in both dimensions of the painting”. (2) Collins’ utilization of the rectangle in the square - the divisions of the painting between sky and ocean, with the horizon line as the base of the square - is a continuation of the tradition of Albers and the painters that came after him. With Collins, however, the musical interval of the surf is a breaking out of of the square’s solid frontal presence. It introduces a new approach to the color field tradition of two directional movements across and through a painting’s picture plane.
Again within this image and emphasis on retinal art, Collins’ painting is the simultaneously reflective and transparent surface of the water and has connection to Monet, the “Nympheas” of 1916 - 1919 (Musee de l’Orangerie, Paris) best known as the famous water lilies. As Collins has pointed out, it is these late paintings of the master that have deeply influenced his own work. Monet’s ability to convey the pond’s depth, the sky and the lilies simultaneously is carried over into collins’ painting as the mirror image of the sun dissolving into and reflected on the ocean. The surf (like Monet’s water lilies) establishes the lucid plane of the water, and the surf’s intervals, between rising and falling, is similar to Monet’s placement of floating flowers.

(1) “The Chronicle of Impressions” - Bernard Devenir, Pg. 71
Blufinch press (Little, Brown & Co.) 1993

(2) “The Structure of Art - Jack Burnham, Pg. 50 George Brazilier 1971


Technique

Collins’ methodology in creating his “Ocean Series” has been consistent since his first canvas on the subject. To begin, he builds up the surface either through a liquid acrylic polymer medium in which are suspended titanium oxide coated mica flakes or through pure colors blended with the use of a similar acrylic medium. Both approaches extend the pigment colors and allow for infinitesimal hue value changes over a large, seemingly flat, field of color. This technique emphasizes translucency, depth, and luminosity.
The blending of colors begins with an overall unifying color, applied with a wallpaper hanger’s brush made of China bristle. This prime color establishes the mood of the painting; the mood of the situation before the observer. It is the key hue of an adjacent series of analogous colors. This blend is applied as horizontal stripes that are then fused into a seamless chromatic sequence. Over this a blend of split complimentary colors, based on the prime color, are added as a focal interest in the surf and modulations of sky patterns. In some paintings two sets of prime color and a corresponding split complimentary are used.

The Psychology of the Artist as it relates to his Paintings

Collins will tell you of his preference to work in a studio where the dominant light source comes from the west. He conceives his seascapes as having a western horizon. This meditation on a setting sun is ancient and universal. It combines the internal space of our oneness with the universe with the recognition of our own mutability. At the seashore, man’s receptivity to and need for the ocean is at once symbolic of our connection with the mother and physiological in our connection to it. We have the same proportion of salt in our blood as salt to water in the world’s oceans. The circularity of the moon’s cycles and their conjunction with the height of the tides not only connects us with the mother symbol of the ocean, but also the notion of “the divine” in the curving mass of the horizon as one place on the sphere on which we live. “The wheel may lead our thoughts toward the concept of a “divine” sun, but at this point reason must admit its incompetence; man is unable to define a divine being.” (3) Unable to define the divine, man has created the specialist in tribal ritual whose practices symbolize an intuition of such without defining it. These individuals, through sympathetic magick along with incantations, dance, and potions must call up the spirit of the divine through images that illustrate the concept. The power to do so is the power of the Shaman of pre-industrial society. The artist of our own information age is our cultural Shaman.

(3) “Man and His Symbols” - Carl Jung, Pg. 4 (Introduction) Dell Publishing
1964

Collins’ paintings in one sense are incantations to an idealized father descending below the horizon, or body, of an equally idealized mother. In the western world gold and yellow often refer to a firey intellect, self-discipline and detachment - the sun. Blue is a spiritual color, related to the clarity and coolness of intellect, chastity, eternal happiness, peace and emotions - the ocean. This idealization is abstracted as a circle within a square. The sun is never seen as such in the paintings but implied through the reflection of sky into ocean.The horizon is the base of the square, the top edge of the canvas being the upper edge, the right and left vertical edges completing it. The paintings have about them a sense of the Mandala, a symbol of meditation or contemplation in the Buddhist and Hindu religions. In these religious images it is represented by a square within a circle. Collins in his paintings has reversed this configuration.
Collins will tell you he intends the observer of his paintings “to experience a mutual mental and physical beneficial result”. This is a painter who, not having a religious intention in his work, correctly asserts a spiritual one. The sky, ocean, and sun are, therefore, ancient remnants within his subconscious. The paintings are the products of archetypal dynamics within his psyche. Primarily here the universal concept of the “divine” nature of a square within a circle is reversed for the purposes of a seascape. Jungian psychoanalytic thinking illuminates another aspect of this configuration. “Abstract mandalas also appear in European Christian art. Some of the most splendid examples are the rose windows in cathedrals. These are representations of man transposed onto the cosmic plane.” (4) The ceilings of religious architecture are another example.
One of the most striking uses of the mandala is in dome architecture, Islamic and Christian. “The square represents the earth held in fourfold embrace by the circular vault of the sky and hence subject to the ever-flowing wheel of time. When the incessant movement of the universe, depicted by the circle, yields to comprehensible order, one finds the square. The square then presupposes the circle and results from it. The relationship of form and movement, of space and time, is evoked by the mandala.” (5)
The division of the painting established by the horizon line of the ocean approximates a square. This shape at once contains and radiates the power of the circle. Deep within Western consciousness is a symbolic geometry that extends itself into emperical science. Geometry from its beginning had this dual function.

(4) ďMan and His SymbolsĒ - Aniela Jaffe ďSymbolism in the Visual Arts, Pg. 268
(5) ďSacred GeometryĒ - Robert Lawlor, Pg. 16. Thames and Hudson 1982

The French ecclesiastic Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 - 1153), founder and abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Clairvaux observed, “What is God? He is length, width, height, and depth.” (6) All these allusions are contained in Collins’ paintings. This point is further demonstrated in his reference to the Greek concept of the Golden Section: the only ratio that is also a proportion. This geometry is not strictly enforced in the paintings, but is in evidence as an intention. Euclid, the Alexandrian mathematician in his “Elements”, Bk. 6, Prop 3 defines it as, “A straight line is said to have been cut in extreme and mean ratio when, as the whole line is to the greater segment, so is the greater to the less.” In Collins’ seascapes, the sky and ocean is to the sky as the sky is to the ocean. In algebra it may be expressed as a:b::b:(a+b). Since antiquity the Golden Section has had mystical meaning in art and science. The Renaissance teacher of sacred geometry, Fra Luca Pacioli (c 1445 - 1515) advised his students to concentrate on the transparent solids as a discipline to assist in the comprehension of the metaphysical realities supporting all appearances.
The filial dimension of the paintings is equally rich in information, The painter’s father, the “paterfamilias” of Christian tradition, has achieved through the artist’s transference of his twofold emotions toward him, respect and pity, a new expression of the Sun God motif.
The combat veteran of WW II, destined to be a pained and injured being, raises classic issues of Oedipal conflict and parricide within his son. The sun in the paintings is both death and resurrection. The respect the painter has for his late father stems not only from natural love, but also from the brutal circumstances of his infirmity. But parricidal impulses, normal in all people toward their parents, are further engendered by a wish to end his father’s suffering. Each painting resurrects the father in the artist’s psyche. In the painter’s imagination the sun, once set in a finished work, will rise again in the first energies of the next, to set again and so on. During his life the artist was forever aware that his father was in the “twilight of life”, suffering in spite of medication.
The father is nonetheless revered above, in the paintings, forever curving down to the horizon. The painter’s mother provided her son with the tools and techniques to ritualize this sublimation into art. A painter herself, the pigment and brushes achieve metamorphosis into unconscious mythopoeic activity within the painter as magick gifts to achieve this sublimation. As a protection like the magick sword given by Athena to kill Medusa (death), the artist’s mother (wisdom) is also the stable earth around which the sun moves. She, too, is the curving ocean upon which the sun reflects its numbing power. It is important to reflect that the specific location of the sun, but not the ocean, is ambivalent in these paintings. The square of the sky has many symbolic meanings. Of the many possible associations the most relevant here are the elements, parts of the world, and temperaments.

(6) “On Consideration” - Bernard of Clairvaux

The painter has remarked on the transcendental nature “of the intense colors at sunset, due to the acute angle of the sun”, and, “The ocean is the source of all rivers - a metaphor of death and reincarnation.” He is guided by the evocative idea of transmutation of the viewer’s physical space into the illusionistic space of the painting, where the boundary between the seen and the unseen that a mandala intends to dissolve is achieved by the quiet luminosity of the image.
Each painting is a celebration of renewal coming to its end before it begins again. A celebration of knowing the father and praising the knowledge gained from the mother. Like Hamlet, Collins is in conversation with the ghost of his father on the crenelated architecture of his memories. Through his gift he is absorbed in a reconciliation of love and understanding (Eros) with the consequence upon himself of war’s betrayal (Thanatos). These are mandalas for the Western mind in which all memories - good and bad - are unified and cleansed in the heat of intelligence and the cooling waters of emotion.

Kevin Costello 1999     Back to the top.






A Conversation With David Cohen, Art Critic for the New York Sun

A portion of this was originally published as:
" 'A Useless, Evil Game'
An Exchange between Carson C.T. Collins and David Cohen on Intentionality"

in the September, 2003 edition of
ArtCritical.com

(The exchange follows David Cohen's article, Ambiguity and Intention, published at the Online symposium on art and cognition organized by Noga Arikha and Gloria Origgi in January 2003, posted at Interdisciplines.org)

From: carson c
To: dc@artcritical.com
Sent: Friday, August 08, 2003 3:36 AM
Subject: an artist's question

"By intention I don't mean that the artist consciously has this or that fully articulated objective in mind at the moment of creation and that the success of the work is somehow mortgaged to the extent to which it was followed through. That would indeed be banal and reductive, robbing art (and for that matter ambiguity) of its organic quality, its ability to live and thrive independently of its originators' intentions..."
- David Cohen


My question is: Why should a work of art have any right to exist independently of it's creator's intentions? Does Mr. Cohen really think that important art is somehow done by accident, or that the critic's rationalizations are somehow more important than the original act? Or what, exactly?
I do think that it is precisely this question of intention that is, tragically, missing from most so-called critical dialogue about contemporary art...
Please advise.
Peace,
Carson

"Dear Carson:
1. Our museums are packed with objects rightly the focus of intense aesthetic regard that are utterly divorced from their makers' intentions, not to mention the value systems of the cultures in which they were produced. Furthermore, most artists I know are perfectly happy for their works to be admired, praised, or bought and sold for the "wrong" - that is to say unintended - reasons. One artist said to me, early in my career, there's no bad reason to like a work of art.
2. Do children have a right to exist independently of their parents' dreams for them?
3. I'm not aware of having placed "critics' rationalization" above "original act" in some hierarchy of values. The work of viewing and of making are relatively separate, and each situation is valid on its own terms.
Artists, Incidentally, are also critics of their own work. They mull over their happy accidents, and not only tolerate but learn from unintended results. Can't see much that's tragic about that.
Thanks for your interest in my work. DC


David,
Thank you for your prompt and courteous reply to my question.
We do often find beauty or significance in the chance arrangement of things, whether done by an artist or an accident; an historical accident, in the case of the museum pieces to which you refer. And, as Carl Jung pointed out with his concept of synchronicity, this is far from trivial - it tells us something important about ourselves (and nothing in particular about the object).
Artists indeed may deliberately use seemingly accidental means to arrive at something that is, for them, intentional. For a good contemporary example, see Steve Peed's work at FromTheMind.net - but this is beside the point.
The point that I'm trying to make is that a most important question for us to ask ourselves, as artists, is one of intent: What, exactly, is the artist's intention for this thing that they've created? What effect, exactly, is it supposed by the artist to have on others? It seems to me that this particular aspect of the question of intent is strangely absent from most so-called critical thinking about contemporary art. An artist who has no concept of her/his own intentions has no integrity or clarity.
Worse, we too often reward artists by assigning meaning and value to objects, the production of which was solely the result of tawdry or trivial motives - personal greed for money or attention being prime examples... I can't think of a more egregious instance of this than the early career of Julian Schnabel, to which I was an eye witness.
Assigning meaning or value to such objects beyond the intentions of their makers seems to me a very bad idea, and one that is dismayingly prevalent in our current art-critical hegemony. Therein lies the "tragedy".
Peace,
Carson


"I understand your anxieties, but I wouldn't want to participate in a criticism the function of which would be to award brownie points for good intentions. I also think there is an essential fallacy in confusing the emotional affect of a work and the worldly ambitions of its maker. If your life depended on the skill of a surgeon you wouldn't care if he was motivated by worldly ambition or a love of humanity; besides which, the two are less incompatible than some moralizers would have us believe. DC

David,
Looking at a piece of art affects us in a positive, a negative, or (rarely) a neutral way. This is obvious: look at the painting; notice how you feel.
The artist is our cultural shaman; her/his function is to heal the tribe.
There are no altruistic motives, we all do everything that we do for personal reasons, e.g. a good deed done for another is rewarded by a feeling of self-satisfaction...
Art that fails to heal or awaken us fails utterly, regardless of what the intention of the artist may have been; there certainly can be no question of "awarding brownie points" for good intentions!
My "anxiety" is that we seem to have lost sight of the higher function of art: that is, to awaken and heal the soul. This is never talked about. Instead, critics treat art as if it were a game of intellectual one-upsmanship or mere clever entertainment, thus "transforming", as Kandinsky said, "the life of the universe into an evil, useless game."
Peace,
Carson

"If you don't know him already, you'd enjoy the writings of the late Peter Fuller, who thought along similar lines. Check out his books Images of God and Theoria. Take care, DC

David,
Thank you for your mention of Peter Fuller, of whom I had been unaware. I've just read your article "Seeing Moore: The case of two critics, Herbert Read and Peter Fuller", and found in it much food for thought.
I was trained to be a medical doctor and have had no formal education in art. Consequently, many of the lovely arabesques of thinking with respect to this subject no doubt escape me. My reactions tend to be more on a level of immediate experience.
You raised an interesting point when you said, "Most artists I know are perfectly happy for their works to be admired, praised, or bought and sold for the 'wrong' - that is to say unintended - reasons. One artist said to me, early in my career, there's no bad reason to like a work of art."
As an artist who's constant intention, for more than a quarter-century, has been to create something that could be a tonic for the human spirit, I have in fact very frequently been dismayed when decorators walked into the gallery with a fabric swatch and selected one of my paintings because it matched the sofa.
On the other hand, an elderly woman once purchased one and hung it in her bathroom. On visiting her house I was disappointed by the placement of my work, until she told me, "Whenever I'm feeling sick, or tired, I look at that painting, and that's so exactly where I want to be..." That was perhaps the highest praise I've ever had.
You might honor me by taking a moment to look at some of my work (insofar as that's possible via a 400-pixel-high image on a CRT). I'd be interested in your considered reaction. Some people get it and some don't.
In any case, thank you for having taken the time to converse with me.
Peace,
Carson

"Actually, I looked already. I can well believe your work has therapeutic value for maker and certain viewers alike. I have totally no way of knowing whether I would "get it" or not from a reproduction, but I would say that I pride myself on eclectic tastes that cut across generations and degrees of fashionability. From the reproductions it seems that your work deals ... with issues of depiction and abstraction that interest me, however such semiotic concerns are an "evil, useless game" compared with the higher calling of shamanism. One thing that fascinates me, from the perspective of our discussion, is that a hip young artist fresh from one of our more savvy academies could make work that, on the surface, looks remarkably like your own , but with ironic intentions. One ... could perceive your ... work in terms of the latest trend in deconstruction while the old lady could place the young trendy in her bathroom for unintended therapy.
Best of luck with all your efforts, and do trust your work to look after itself on its own in our wild and unpredictable world.
PS would you like me to publish our correspondence at artcritical, with a repro of one of your works?


David,
Thank you for the kind words. I would be enormously grateful for any sort of exposure you might give me, so of course please do feel free to publish anything of mine that you may chose on your excellent web site.
Did you have in mind any particular fresh, hip, savvy young artist? Or was that speculation? A Chicago art critic once accused me of being ironic (with The Ocean Series) and I responded with a quote from Oscar Wilde: "I am sincere, I am sincere, I am sincere."
I must thank you again for having introduced me to Peter Fuller; I forgot to mention that I, too have been fascinated by the Mandelbrot Set and the concept of a Sacred Geometry.
You must forgive me my polemics - I did not mean to denigrate anyone's semiotics in any way, only to say that, in my opinion, this is very far from being the most important thing for an artist to think about. Most of what we all do is instinctive, and, as Shakespeare put it, "nothing is good or evil but thinking makes it so."
Perhaps someday I'll have another show in NYC and you'll have an opportunity to see the thing itself, as opposed to a few pixels on a CRT. Stranger things have happened.
Another thought: I believe that I agree with you when I say that ambiguity is indeed an essential characteristic of all really great art.






Interview
June, 2007


I was introduced to Carson Collins over a year ago while observing art online. Mr. Collins is a very devoted painter and he has many interesting stories.

Carson has been working on The Ocean Series for more than a quarter of a century. This body of work reveals the work ethic of Mr. Collins. It is rare to find an artist so devoted to a theme.

Brian Sherwin: Carson, the subject of your art is the four elements in their most majestic setting - the shoreline. Your images have captured aspects of earth, air, fire, and water. Why have you had such a strong focus on these themes? Do you feel that painters should share this same focus in their work or is it more of an issue of personal choice?

Carson Collins:
I guess you could say that this conflation of a traditional marine sunset with a color-field painting, something that originally crossed my mind sometime back in 1977, has turned out to be a fairly fertile idea for me. Call it a Remodernist approach to the color-field tradition if you like, but I'm not trying to deconstruct anything, fit into any category, or prove any theories.

BS: Do you plan to work on the Ocean Series until the day you die?

CC: I don't make any plans to speak of; I kicked the hope habit long ago. There's no tomorrow. So far, the motif continues to fascinate me, as it has for the past thirty years.

BS: I understand that you have traveled the world and that you have lived in many places. How do the customs and experiences you have faced during your travels influenced your painting? Do you consider yourself a vagabond? If so, is that reflected in your work? It seems, based on your work, that you are a man who seeks new horizons- both physically and mentally.

CC: I've lived and worked, for a year or more, in 7 of the USA States and 6 other countries, not to mention the ones I've visited. In my experience, the problems for an artist are the same in any country: poverty, and the fact that very few people are ever going to understand or appreciate what you're doing.

Am I a "vagabond"? I've done a fair amount of traveling without ever having had any capital to speak of, if that's what you mean. But I'm past my prime. That sort of thing was a lot easier for me at 25 than it was at 52. I was born in 1953.

I confess that I am much inclined to travel. "No horizon too far." Itís arguably the best form of education. I intend to go to Tierra del Fuego some day soon. The atmospheric light and the ocean wave forms there must be something truly amazing. There's a legend about an ancient stone ruin down there that glows in the dark, and my friend (physician and poet) Chris Horak and I intend (in the usual way of aging adventurers) to find it.

BS: Carson, one of your major influences has been the art of Claude Monet. What connections to his work have you striven to create within the context of your own work. Do you share some of his philosophy about artistic creation? If so, can you go into further detail about that?

CC: Monet, in my opinion, was the greatest painter that ever walked the earth. He wasn't much of a philosopher. His last series, the water lilies, are transcendent. Visit the Orangerie in the Tuileries Gardens in central Paris if you can. Sit down on the little bench and let one of these grand, astonishing works surround and dissolve you.

BS: When I first observed your work- about a year ago- I noted that there seemed to be a trace of Mark Rothko in your paintings. Is Rothko an influence? Have you ever visited the Rothko Chapel?

CC: I walked into the Chapel (on the campus of Rice University in Houston, TX) one day in 1974, expecting to find less than nothing; just another high art hoax. My reaction was both overwhelming and totally unexpected. I literally wept, much as I also did years later when I saw the Van Goghs in Munich. Rothko was a genius and a tragic hero; he sought and achieved the expression of an authentic personal spirituality within the then- dominant idiom of Ab-Ex. I don't think there's one famous painter living today who's worth the shit on the bottom of Mark Rothko's shoes.

BS: I'm not sure why, but when I view your paintings I think of the Iliad and other classic texts. I'm assuming that you are well-read since your work conveys that... at least to me.

CC: Perhaps the thing that gives you this impression is a quality of timelessness, which is inherent in my subject matter as well as in my rendering of it.

Here's something Robert Wallis said about my painting, Et In Arcadia Ego: "The late afternoons in Arcadia are never ending where time comes to a standstill. The waves move but the pattern has no end, and the mind seizes on nothingness and holds it. The colors evoke a sense of all-enveloping warmth that reinforces the idea of finding the magic moment within. The time will come to step away from the picture, but it becomes embedded in the mind's eye. With a moment of stillness it will return, and the peace will return. The sadness is knowing that Arcadia is a place to visit, and that happiness by it's nature requires a contrast to give it value. That's why we can't stay there."

The ocean is ever-changing. Observe it closely, its forms and colors are in constant flux, itís never still, you cannot exhaust its infinite variety. And yet, it is always and profoundly the same; the ocean symbolizes the passage of time and the persistence of memory. To say that this image of the far horizon and the dying sunlight has broad metaphoric powers would be to belabor the obvious.

BS: I'd love to hear more of your stories.

CC: Hereís one that might be of some general interest: I knew Joe Glasco from 1973 until 1982. After that I never saw him again; I learned of his death when I saw Julian Schnabel's film, Basquiat, on TV in 1998. (As you may know, the film is dedicated to Joe and he is a player in two of the scenes.) My relationship with Joe was intimate, complex, and problematic, but for purposes of this story let's just say that I was Joe's friend and Julian Schnabel was also Joe's friend.

One evening in 1980 Joe got a 'phone call from Julian, who was distraught because the fashion model he had been dating (I can't remember her name) had dumped him, and he had an opening at Mary Boone's gallery in a couple of days. He didn't have enough work ready for the show and was too upset, he said, to work... Joe and I went over to his place. Julian made us dinner (spaghetti with peanut butter sauce). It was a mess; the man was hysterical.

Anyway there were these four little collage drawings sitting on the mantle and Julian was too upset to finish them. Joe suggested that Julian should let me finish the "drawings"- which had pictures of architectural elements and statuary that had been ripped out of old magazines glued on - because, "he has a good eye", as Joe put it. I applied myself to the task while Joe and Julian sat in the kitchen over wine and reefers (Joe was an alcoholic who never drank but he liked to smoke pot). There was a pile of old magazines, glue, and assorted pencils and paints...

When I had finished the drawings to my satisfaction I went back into the kitchen and said, "they're done." Joe and Julian came out and had a look. "Are they really finished?" asked Julian. Joe thought about it for maybe 5 seconds and said. "Yes." Julian smiled through his tears. "Great", he said "That's twenty thousand dollars." I wasn't offered a percentage... but, I will say this for Julian: He was sincere about being insincere.

I met Basquiat in 1979. I was coming home around dawn and there he was, tagging the building that I lived in at 100 Greene St. He was writing SAMO SAMO SAMO SAMO SAMO SAMO all over the place with a can of white spray paint, as he had been doing to everything within reach, in SoHo, for months. I politely said good morning (because he was blocking my door) and asked if he couldn't do us all a favor and maybe use some different colors once in a while, or at least write something else for a little variety. He replied with a rather common racial epithet that I won't repeat here. I didn't think much of him then, and I don't think much of his paintings today.

I have met Mary Boone and been to events in her gallery. I was 26 years old when I met her and I'm not aware of her opinions having influenced me even then. Let's just say that I was not favorably impressed, to put it mildly.

I don't know how Mary Boone or the late Leo Castelli or any of these art-star makers decided who they were going to push. There are probably any number of personal factors involved in each individual case. It doesn't strike me that the process is particularly organized or guided by any grand principle other than the fact that the public doesn't know anything about art and never will.

There must be a thrill that they get from the knowledge that they have the power to take any junkie off the street and make him an art star, and of course there's money to be made.

What I'm trying to get at is that I was a part of that scene and witnessed the rise of both Basquiat and Schnabel, and I don't really think there was anything much to be learned there, apart from some trivia about the players and a few amusing stories.

I think fame and material success for an artist is almost entirely a matter of luck: being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, being capable of sucking up to them in a way that they find gratifying, and having whatever kind of art you are predisposed to make coincide with an existing trend.

On reflection, there's something else that probably should be said here, even though it might appear so obvious as to be not worth mentioning: The reason that Mary Boone helped Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat was because she liked them and liked their work. Further, they were artists who were in step with the fashions of the day, and thus were relatively easy to sell. I really don't think there was anything particularly sinister about it.

BS: What is this conflict you had with David Cohen (art critic for the New York Sun)?

CC: There was never any conflict; quite the opposite. I read his article, "Ambiguity and Intention", published at the Online Symposium on Art and Cognition organized by Noga Arikha and Gloria Origgi in January 2003, and posted at interdisciplines.org Some of the things David said were thought-provoking (in a disturbing sort of way), and I sent him an email expressing some of my contrasting views on the subject. He replied, and we had a dialog that Mr. Cohen found sufficiently interesting to publish in the September, 2003 issue of his e-zine, "Art Critical."

I confess that logic is a subject that fascinates me almost as much as painting, and I genuinely enjoy discussions involving inference (a.k.a. arguments) about art.

BS: How have things changed since the 70's and 80's as far as the art world is concerned... is it too corporate now? Do you think younger artists are being exploited more than ever?

CC: So far as I have observed in my lifetime, nothing ever really changes in the art world. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

BS: How did Schnabel and Basquiat act towards others who did not 'make it' once they became huge?

CC: Basquiat and I took an instant dislike to each other. Schnabel was never really a friend of mine, he was Joe Glasco's friend, and whatever connection I had with him ended when Joe and I parted ways; since I was never a friend of either one, I really don't know the answer to your question.

BS: So tell me more about your experiences... who you've met... the countries you've been to. The influences you've had.

CC: I've lived in the Bahamas, St.Barthelemy, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Sweden, and Mauritius. The two most interesting encounters Iíve had with famous people were George Harrison and Timothy Leary. I did a light show for the immortal musical genius, Jimi Hendrix, at Curtis-Hixon Hall (Tampa,FL) in 1968, but he only said a few words to me. I was all of 15 years old at the time. I remember thinking, "Jesus-take-me-now!" He was my big hero then. Still is, as a matter of fact...

By far the greatest influence on my life has been Vipassana Buddhism, specifically the practice of meditation on the breath, and Metta (Universal Love), as taught to me by a truly extraordinary man, John Travis. John is the real thing; heís part of a handful of people who brought this spiritual technology to the West. Vipassana wasnít taught outside of monasteries until the late 1980s. Anyone whoís interested can learn more about John and Vipassana at his web site, MtStream.org By the way, be forewarned; itís not for the faint-of-heart.

BS: Tell me more about meeting George Harrison and Timothy Leary. Did they have an impact on your art?

CC: Not directly. George Harrison was an enormous influence on me (and a whole lot of other people) because of his role in popularizing Transcendental Meditation. I began the practice of meditation and eventually became a Buddhist largely because of something George Harrison did by promoting the Hindu teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, at the height of the Beatles' fame and fortune.

My meeting with Mr. Harrison was completely accidental; I met him in a French restaurant in a very out-of-the-way place. He was dining alone, and I approached his table to pay my respects to him. He was extremely gracious, invited me to sit down and have a glass of wine. I was a little drunk.

The thing I remember most about him was that he was profoundly sad, and, it seemed to me, lonely. I remember feeling angry at the thought that this man, who was something of a hero in my mind, did not seem to enjoy his advantages as much as I would have wished him to.

I met Dr. Leary in a Japanese restaurant in NYC; came out of the restroom and suddenly there he was, making a telephone call. I normally don't annoy celebrities but for some reason I felt compelled to speak to him. I thought he was an important man who had shown the courage ofhis convictions, a sort of contemporary intellectual martyr.

He was a tenured psychology professor at Harvard who was fired and subsequently put in prison, you know. The discovery of LSD will one day be seen as the important milestone in human evolution that Tim believed it to be.

Anyone who wants to know the real story should read "Storming Heaven; LSD and theAmerican Dream" by Jay Stevens. Anyhow, Tim gave me his telephone number. A few months later he was a guest in my house. He was a wonderfully amusing man; incredibly energetic and young at heart; unpretentious, just a whole lot of fun to be with. He was a sort of Holy Fool. When he smiled, all of the colors got brighter. I consider it a great honor to have known him, however briefly.

BS: So due to your interest in Vipassana, would you say that your work is an expression of your spirituality? Do find some form of redemption or solace in your work?

CC: Yes, absolutely. The central theme in my painting is the search for stillness, the sort of profound and lucid calm that is the result of meditation or contemplation; another main theme is the relationship between humans, the ocean, and the atmosphere. The intent of my work is to create an ambiance where the spiritual dimension of this relationship can be experienced.

BS: Can you discuss your relationship with Joe Glasco? How did he impact your art?

CC: Joe Glasco influenced me more than any other artist. I had been drafted, and was enrolled in medical school at UTMB, Galveston. The year was 1973. It was called a 2-M deferment; I was supposed to go to Viet Nam as an Army Surgical Officer in one of those M.A.S.H. units after I graduated. President Nixon pulled the plug on the war while I was still in school, so I never actually went over there.

Joe Glasco had a studio in Galveston at that time, in an old cotton warehouse on Strand Ave. Anyway, I met Joe when I was a student, 19 or 20 years old, and he was in his early 50s; about the same age as I am now, come to think of it. Joe was quite a colorful character: he had once been the youngest man ever to be shown in the New York MOMA, had been one of Jackson Pollockís drinking buddies, etc.

Joe and I had the sort of relationship that Oscar Wilde famously referred to as "The Love that Dares Not Speak it's Name." It lasted for about 9 years, off and on. It was problematic, because Joe was gay and I wasn't, really. But I was broad minded and narcissistic enough to be capable of that sort of gender-bending (up to a point), and bisexuality was quite fashionable in those days.

Anyway Joe and I fell in love with each other; so much so that, for a while, it didn't seem to matter what kind of plumbing we had. Of course the relationship was doomed from the start.

Joe was the only actual living role-model I ever had for being an artist. He gave me an art education that couldn't have been bought, not for any price. He could have done a lot more. I have one of his paintings hanging in my studio, and I've often raised a glass to it and said,"Here's to Joe Glasco, who could have given me the World, and didn't." But I've no doubt that his intentions were good. He didn't think I was ready, and he was probably right. It's my misfortune that Joe died when he did, but Death is no respecter of our little plans, is he? He comes whenever he wants to.

Joe didn't have much to say about painting, but he taught me just about everything I know about being a painter, which is an entirely disparate skill. I sure do miss that mean old queer. I think about him often.

His work is largely forgotten at this point in time, and undeservedly so; some of his last paintings really are amazingly good. I believe the largest and best collection of his late work is in the Fred Jones Museum at Oklahoma University.

BS: So would you say that your paintings are the place you want to go when you pass? Are they a reflection of the kind of balance you would desire in the hereafter?

CC: I don't believe in any kind of hereafter. Now is all there is.

BS: When did you first decide to pick up the brush?

CC: I had a very severe illness when I was seven years old; was in a coma for a few days, and it was not at all certain that I would survive. There was brain damage; when I recovered I had temporarily lost my hearing. It didn't fully come back for six months.

At that time I suddenly developed the ability to draw and paint with a facility, an accuracy, a compositional sense, and a strange, coherent, plunging perspective; something that was astonishing in a child of that age. I started painting then and I'm still at it.

My mother had an MFA and an M Ed, and she taught me the basics. I also read Irving Stone's biography of Van Gogh around that time, and the Van Gogh myth captured my childís imagination completely. From that point on, there was no turning back; I was going to be a painter, no matter what. No choice, pal. The die was cast.

BS: We have discussed your art, experiences... even aspects of your youth in regards to your painting. What else would you like to say about your paintings?

CC: It's really very simple: Look at the painting. Notice how you feel. Some viewers have found them evocative. Believe it or not, other viewers have been made extremely uncomfortable by them; they really do tend to throw a certain kind of person back on themselves in a way that can be quite confrontational. Threatening, even. How strange is that?

Other people find them completely worthless. "Wallpaper" is a disparaging word that I hear quite often from trendy artists these days. But, hey, they said that about Jackson Pollock as well, didnít they? What the hell... You canít please everyone. Some people like them and some donít.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say to younger painters?

CC: I'm only 53 years old, for Christ's sake! But, OK, here's some advice, with the caveat that I've never been successful, and my advice is probably worth exactly what the reader is paying for it. Don't ever upset yourself over anyone's negative opinion of your artwork. Really, there are only two possibilities: either they're right, in which case you have the opportunity to learn something, or else they're wrong, in which case, why should you upset yourself over some fool's mistaken opinion? It's all good. In either case, you decide.

Question everything in the privacy of your studio. If you've never experienced a crisis of doubt when you realized that everything you had ever done was shit, there's no hope for you. To the World, on the other hand, be confident. Know what your convictions are, and have the courage of your convictions.

As Goethe said, boldness has genius, power, and magick in it. Finally, I think the most important question that we have to ask ourselves, as artists, is one of intent.

What, exactly, is the artist's intention for this thing that they've created? What effect, exactly, is it supposed by the artist to have on others? It seems to me that this particular aspect of the question of intentionality is strangely absent from most so-called critical thinking about contemporary art.

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Twilight Seas

In the hour after the sun sets into the sea, nature's palette defies description. The names of colors are simply inadequate, so we resort to metaphor, describing the sky as moody, the light as inspiring, the water as wary. The artist Carson Collins believes this is why the emotional truth of his twilight seascapes is more important than their pictorial truth. Without realizing it, we enter the scenes of his paintings ourselves, and suddenly the experience of the moment is not his, but ours. "I'm not sending a message," the artist says. "I'm offering an opportunity."

His paintings, which invariably show the ocean horizon in early evening, framed by gentle foreground surf and infinite sky, can be mesmerizing. Some collectors compare them to Mandalas. Like those Buddhist works, which grow more absorbing the longer you look, Collins' paintings draw out reactions that begin subconsciously and then flower into insight. "Everyone has been on an empty beach to watch the sunset," he points out. "Some people turn their backs after the sun goes down, because for them the action's over. Some of us keep looking, because for us the action's just beginning."

In fact, Collins spends hours each day studying the sea, and has maintained this practice for years while living on some of the world's choicest coastland: from the Bahamas to the Baltic, from California to the Caribbean, from Maui to Mauritius. "The sea is the oldest, best metaphor we have for human experience," he says. "Its the cradle of life, the mystery of death, the horizon we're always traveling toward. The more experience we have of the sea, the more experience we have of what it is to be human." His paintings, which range in size from several feet on a side to more than 60 square feet, are named for particular moments in particular places. The point is not to freeze a moment in time, but to open it up and find the essential qualities that will keep it alive for others to experience.

Collins works with acrylic paint on canvas, in part because the fast-drying combination is well suited to seaside climates but also because it forces him to prepare thoroughly before working quickly to capture a subject that is, by its nature, disappearing as he paints it. He has exhibited in solo shows in such cultural centers as New York, San Francisco, and Stockholm, as well as in more exotic capitals such as San Jose, Costa Rica. His work has been called minimalist, impressionist, even surrealist - intriguing in a world that seems to love categorizing art as much as looking at it. But Collins is not trying to fit into a category or prove any theories. He's not even trying to tell us a story. Instead he wants to draw us so completely into nature's story that we tell it to ourselves. As his colors, textures, and technique begin to work their magic, we feel the loss of the sun slipping into the sea, the closeness of the evening draw around us like a cloak, and the tug of a memory so long forgotten, so deeply welcomed.

Thom Elkjer 1999 Back to the top.






Interview
June, 2003


Q: Welcome, Carson! First of all, if you donít mind, I would ask you to introduce yourself (identity, profession, age, country and town you are living in, etc.)
Answer : I'm Carson Collins, a painter; I'll be 50 years old this coming November. At the moment I'm living in Seaside, Oregon (on the northern Pacific coast of the USA), but this is temporary. I move around a lot. I've lived and worked in seven of the United States (Florida, New York, Texas, California, Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon) and six other countries: Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Bart, Costa Rica, Mauritius, and Sweden. Very soon I'll be moving again. I'm nomadic.

Q: When, how did you start to paint? and why?
Answer : I had a very severe illness when I was seven years old; was in a coma for a few days, and it was not at all certain that I would survive. There was brain damage; when I recovered I had temporarily lost my hearing. It didn't fully come back for six months. At that time I suddenly developed the ability to draw and paint with a facility, an accuracy, a compositional sense, and a strange, coherent, plunging perspective; something that was astonishing in a child of that age. I started painting then and I'm still at it.

Q: Can you tell us something about your work, exhibitions, and others as a painter but also as a printmaker.
Answer : I'm not a printmaker. I only recently started making my work available as prints and posters because I wanted to reach a larger segment of the population. Most of the people on the planet wouldn't be able to afford to buy one of my original paintings. I wouldn't, for example!

I had my first exhibition as an adult when I was eleven years old, in a juried group show at the Sarasota (Florida) Art Association, in 1965. My first solo exhibition was in 1980, at Sarah Rentschler Gallery in New York City. My most recent one was January 2003 at Sekanina Contemporary Art Gallery in Ferrara, Italy. In between I had a couple of dozen shows in commercial galleries here and there. I had a good show at Norro Gruppen Konstgallerie in Stockholm, 1991. For most of the 90s I was represented by the Hodgell Gallery in Sarasota, Florida (where I grew up, and my mother lives).

As for my work, it seems to be very hard for people to categorize. I've been called everything from a minimalist to a pointillist, which is kind of funny, if you think about it. I'm not trying to fit into any category. The art scholar Kevin Costello coined the term "Littoralism" to describe what I do. To put it on a quite basic level, the conflation of a traditional marine sunset with a color field painting has been a very fertile idea for me. I've been working on The Ocean Series for twenty-six years now.

Q: What are the main problems an artist can meet in your country? in other words, is it easy for a painter to be successful there?
Answer : I've never been successful, and I've spent half of my life outside the USA, so I really don't know. For an artist to find material success might be a great thing, but it's not at all what the artist should be looking for. If you're going to do any important work, this isn't something to think about.
Presumably the problems for an artist are the same in any country: poverty, and the fact that very few people are ever going to understand or appreciate what you're doing.

Q: Have you got any projects or wishes?
Answer : I'd like to have an exhibition at a gallery in the South of France; Nice, or Cannes, for example.

Q: Maybe, something to add?
Answer : I think the most important question that we have to ask ourselves, as artists, is one of intent. What, exactly, is the artist's intention for this thing that they've created? What effect, exactly, is it supposed by the artist to have on others? It seems to me that this particular aspect of the question of intent is strangely absent from most so-called critical thinking about contemporary art.


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