Some artists paint stunning abstractions, some artists deftly execute exquisite realistic images, while others ingeniously develop astute conceptual work, but the truly magical art is work that can intelligently create the aura of time, space, and experience. Fortunately Pauline Decarmo, by using any means necessary, does exactly that in her exhibition, Exit, on view at LABspace in Hillsdale NY through May 29.
Decarmo, born in Guyana, South America and raised in South Jamaica, Queens, NY riffs on the innocence, sense of security and all out fun of childhood street games played during an era of pre-technology. She uses the configuration of a skelly board, a game using a chalk drawn format created on streets and sidewalks with inventive adjustments to bottle caps, as both content driven inspiration and compositional structure. Don’t make the assumption these works are nostalgic or sentimental; rather, they mine the strengths and solace these early experiences imbue when confronted with traumas later in life.
In the first gallery it seems as though four large-scale works are reinforcing the walls. Smaller canvases are intermittently installed. Each immense diptych is 80 inches high, and composed on a support of two ordinary wood doors. This is not your zoom experience or a one-minute walk through. Each painting is like a magnet rooting you to the floor in front of it. Decarmo works in a similar manner to the 50’s abstract painter, Mark Rothko, sometimes utilizing 20 layers of gesso and scraping each layer, ridding it or correcting inconsequential marks and images. What remains are layers of translucent milky white scrims annotated with prescient symbols and significant text. This transports you through defining moments that are at once communal and personal.
Day Dreaming IV, made with acrylic and markers is a perfect layout of a skelly board painted mostly in a cool grey scale, with a tiny strip of blue at the bottom with the word start superimposed on top of it. 12 squares are drawn equidistantly around the periphery of a large square. In the center is a 13th square otherwise known as the skull surrounded by four trapezoids. This image of childhood is ubiquitous throughout Decarmo’s oeuvre and is a window into her motivations in this exhibition. Through several layers, ghostly traces of previous games can be seen as well as numbers and a specific address, 158 St. Qns NY leaving no doubt about the context of this work. In the center of the game within the 13th square is an icon of a crown. This symbol is frequently associated with Jean Michel Basquiat’s work and could be interpreted as homage to an inspiring older fellow New York City painter.
Adjacent to Day Dreaming IV, is another large-scale beauty, Day Dreaming I, the first painting you see when you enter the gallery. Each line, each mark is packed with references setting down a timeline including era defining symbols such as a boom box, and life events delineated by tally marks, a clock face with no hands, an hourglass with no sand, ladders, heart monitors, doors, windows, numbers denoting age, toilets, phrases, book titles, references to Black Lives Matter and the skelly board with all its sobriquets and finally, admonishments or words associated with children, Play Nice, I’m Out, I quit, and Ask Here. Besides the images the writing is critical to this piece and many other works in the show. It is following in the need for immediacy often demonstrated by early graffiti writers. It is not haphazard nor is it superficial. The content of the words, the composition of where they are placed and the subtle use of color and mark making all contribute to the depth of the painting. Day Dreaming I is a prime example of inspiration leading to a new innovative body of work that will, in turn, inspire younger artists.
The second room in the gallery is populated by small, mostly square paintings. The themes mirror those of the larger pieces and exude the same power. Installed almost in the same manner as meditative narratives in gothic cathedrals depicting biblical stories such as the Passion of Christ or travails of heroic saints the journey of contemporary struggles and victories beam from the work. Not surprisingly, Decarmo mentions artists such as Caravaggio as inspiration. Simple black lines depict fire escapes, swaying clothes on a line, and reappearing depictions of time rendered on a palette of slate blue, gauzy white and yellow give the sense of warm summer evenings as the sun sets. Other works demand answers via text and visually scream frustration in bold black writing. Two of the most interesting are LIR QNS, which is verging on minimalism. Swaths of industrial green, blue and off white are only broken up by a few thin lines and traces of discarded thoughts. Marks that could be construed as a railroad break the composition. The other is Just Another One of Those Days II. This maintains the same background of slate blue and images of windows, and marking time, but in addition the outline of a figure occupies the foreground. The face has been obliterated by both yellow and white.
These examples provide a small taste of a sensitive, heartfelt show executed by an innovative artist who doesn’t wait and has a wheelhouse of skills to draw not only from art history, but also from materials and life lessons in her environment. She uses what is available to her to synthesize the experiences of life and the choices foisted upon us by time and context. She reminds us all we can look back and find moments when we were happy and supported and that will propel us forward.
Pauline Decarmo: Exit at LABspace, 2642 NY Route 23, Hillsdale NY through May 29.
Sara Farrell Okamura is an artist, writer, and arts educator based in North Adams, Massachusetts.