The title of Eric Timothy Carlson’s latest show—“Ob Struct Err Ob Literate Or”—might be a mouthful, but if you break down the pieces, it reveals a bit of the method to the artist’s madness.
Like the syllables that make it up, the drawings, sculptures and mural now on view at New York art and design gallery Patrick Parrish Gallery are all tied together by a single thread that started, like many of the artist’s projects, with a “semi-visual poem” and winds its way through art history and his own multifaceted artistic practice. I recently met with the artist to discuss the new show and its origins.
In an exhibition so layered and full of (self-)reference it’s hard to say where things begin and end, but perhaps the easiest place to start is that title. Written in plain English it’s pretty straightforward: “Obstructer Obliterator.” The first word comes from Obstruction, a 1920 work by Man Ray that Parrish introduced to Carlson, in which the artist hung clothes hangers onto clothes hangers until the form began to metastasize—an artistic statement about obliterating the past. At the next level there’s “ob” (for obituary) and “struct” (a way of organizing computer data so they can reference each other faster). And “literate”? Well, what do you expect from an artist who sends out a multimedia poem rather than a press release?
Now here’s the thing. You don’t need to know any of that to understand what Carlson is working with. Taken at face value, the show is a celebration of materials, line, and objects. Drawing is at the core of what Carlson does, “a very natural output,” he says, and the detailed compositions he makes are both graphite incubators for his three-dimensional works and a window into the influences that circulate in his mind. He starts with a set amount of pages, often repurposed, as in this case, from a Toulouse-Lautrec print portfolio, and then goes at it—frequently working up to 20 hours on a single piece. Images come together from a cache of public library finds and television shows to form elaborate worlds that call to mind botanical prints, tattoo flash sheets, coats of arms or rebuses: images that can be read almost like text.
He then translates these works into sculptural forms, borrowing the curve of a line to suggest a fence, or turning a geometric graphite drawing into a graphite sculpture, a drawing in actual 3D. “There’s the drawings, there’s the drawings as sculptural objects, there’s the sculptural objects derived from drawing, there’s drawing a mural that is the space itself,” Carlson tells me of the elements of the show. “So surface to become object, surface to become container, and then that which it contains.”
And then back to Man Ray. He’s referenced again in a series of sculptural installations of abstracted hanger forms that Carlson has carefully cantilevered by balancing objects of personal significance—a fitting move in a gallery filled with design objects from the likes of Carl Auböck. Draped in T-shirts, the sculptures reference the figure while forcing the viewer to peer through them—obstructing and obliterating the lines of sight at every turn.