Dynamic Elegance

By Wilkinson, Todd | Southwest Art, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Dynamic Elegance


Wilkinson, Todd, Southwest Art


George Carlson's sculptures of human and animal figures convey inherent beauty and dignity I By Todd Wilkinson

FOR 40 YEARS, sculptor George Carlson has transformed bronze horses into grand allegories. He has also used mass and gesture abstractly, with spare detail, to communicate the ancient grace of indigenous peoples. And he's become famous for his historical portraits and commissioned busts of individuals who are icons of our time. For Carlson, elegance flows from dynamic simplicity.

Carlson's powerful human and animal figures have elevated him to the uncommon status of modern American master. Yet he is often asked one of the most common questions in the art world: "How do you know when a piece is finished?" In responding to such queries, the artist confesses that he is able to walk away from a piece and call it completed only when the voice of creation no longer screams in his head.

"As I begin to explore a new idea, I can't wait to get into the studio because the voice is calling me, and it is relentless," he says from his home in Harrison, ID. "But you reach a certain point where your intuition knows that enough is enough, that any more refinement will detract rather than add. I've learned that if you go too far with detail, you suck all the life out of whatever it is you're creating."

Still, Carlson admits there have been a few special circumstances when the dialogue has been ongoing. One of these involves an unfinished study of a Belgian horse, dusted off after two decades of dormancy, that Carlson revisited and finally cast. "My assistant was rummaging through some old boxes and said, `Boss, look at this.' It was an intriguing discovery because I had forgotten about it. When I get stuck on a piece, I don't ever abandon it; I move on to something else thinking I will return to it. But this piece kind of slipped away. From the moment I saw it again, the voice in my head was still calling. But now I saw it through fresh eyes."

Rather than overhauling the work, Carlson sculpted a head for the horse's already completed body, correcting what he identified as subtle anatomical inconsistencies between tension and repose. However, he left most of the original design intact, even preserving a gash that he had laid down in the clay long ago. "Someone else might have smoothed it over, but for me this little impression relates to a spontaneous incident that is part of the piece," he says. "As I've gotten older, I've learned that it's better not to want to control everything. You need to let things happen."

Today THE BROOD MARE, begun in 1982, speaks to Carlson's evolutionary relationship with realism. This "new" piece is among several equine works in a one-man retrospective show, appropriately titled The Year of the Horse, opening this month at Nicholas Fine Art in Billings, MT. "I've always been in love with horses," Carlson says. "They've been important to me as subjects over the course of my career, and in some ways THE BROOD MARE symbolizes how the past constantly cycles into the present."

Carlson is referring not only to his own body of work but also to his belief that answers to many modem sculptural challenges reside in antiquity. "There are some who doubt the value of classicism because they claim that all good traditional sculpture has been done before," Carlson says. "I'm not one of them. I'm continually amazed by works of the past-although I do believe that every generation is capable of offering its own meaningful contribution."

In The Year of the Horse, Carlson makes his case with pieces that have been personal touchstones-among them such well-known works as MANE OF WIND, NECK OF THUNDER; FRiou; and ROSETTE WAITING. These portrayals of quarter horses, Clydesdales, thoroughbreds, Belgians, and Percherons remind the viewer why Carlson's work is in the permanent collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Center, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, and the Gilcrease Museum. …

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