Artists’ luminous landscapes

Marci Aylward and John Davis Carroll present luminous landscapes at The Late Show

By Tanya Hartman, for The Kansas City Star

Published 10/16/2014

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“Gosh, the river is moving! What color do I see? And how can I best express it?”

This is one of many questions running through artist Marci Aylward’s mind while painting on the banks of the Missouri River.

Her recent plein air paintings, along with those of her husband, John Davis Carroll, are on view at The Late Show, an independent and quirky gallery in the east Crossroads.

Carroll’s thoughts on his creative process are no less fertile. During a recent interview at the gallery, he explained why he paints: “My imagination can’t make up what nature gives to me. When I am out in the landscape, looking at the colors and the shapes, I get an incredible joy. The paintings are not just documentation. They are an expression of all five senses, what I am seeing, hearing, tasting and feeling in the moment.”

Aylward and Carroll express what they observe through masterful drawing and luminous oil paint, but they bring specificity to their depictions of the land. Their paintings, often of the same river on the same day in the same light, are very different.

Carroll uses an unusual recipe for his paint, in which he adds egg yolk and stand oil (a thick linseed oil) to his pigment to achieve a buttery and radiant surface quality that looks wet, even when dry.

His compositions often focus on an enormous sky dwarfing a miniscule strip of land. Within his incandescent atmospheres, his brushstrokes loosen, so that the rhythmic striations of his brush’s bristles are left intact on the painted surface, acting as linear rhythms that unify the environments he conjures. He is not just painting what he sees, but trying to evoke a fleeting condition of beauty.

As Carroll moves from sky to land, his handling of the paint changes and becomes more linear and detailed. Tiny elements, such as red-and-white striped smokestacks or eccentric trees are meticulously rendered.

The effect allows the viewer to ponder that we cannot perceive the mystery that surrounds us as clearly as we can see what is known, material and temporal. The skies above Carroll’s fragile power stations and chimneys are infinitely commanding and yet elusive.

There is a deeper sense of place in Aylward’s paintings, which resonate with the quiet dignity of the region. In keeping with an essence of Kansas and Missouri, the paintings are modest and more visually quiet than those of Carroll.

The artist explained, “A lot of this art was done along the Missouri River, and so I was seeing tugboats and barges and that excited me. I was surprised that the river was still being used as a thoroughfare. The power behind it! That muddy river!”

Aylward’s intensity and awe regarding the subject matter is translated into exquisite colors and pared down, almost abstract, shapes. All her paintings are dappled with light that seems to skitter across her solid forms, enlivening them with a mysterious character. As a suite, the boat paintings modify and augment one another. Some vessels are in motion and some are securely moored.

The symbol of the boat is freighted with metaphor. Frequently, it is used to illustrate our liminal natures, suspended as we are between birth and death. Though there is no overt use of the boat as a symbol, the elegance and introversion of the work allows the viewer to make connections.

This is an exhibition absolutely without pretense.