Caroline Carlsmith is currently in the throes of a love affair. She is, at the moment, in a relationship with Walt Whitman. Like Whitman’s own attempt to reach out towards the ghost of another human being, Carlsmith is reaching out to Whitman’s ghost and thereby constructing her own love letter to the deceased poet.
Based on Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” poems from Leaves of Grass (1860), Carlsmith is drawing 45 life-size Calamus plants – one for each of Whitman’s poems. The plants are drawn in various states of their lifecycle reflecting the passage of time. More than just the life of the plant, however, this suggests the intense and meticulous work Carlsmith has spent drawing these plants. Perhaps above all, however, the drawings chronicle love and its processes. By appropriating and re-interpreting these poetic works, Carlsmith is inserting herself into these historic love poems. It is, perhaps, a curious choice. These poems, which reveal a story of attachment and denial, were written by a man, in the nineteenth century, and were likely about homosexual love. Carlsmith, herself a heterosexual female working in the twenty-first century, sees her project as a response to Whitman and his Calamus cluster.
Carlsmith describes her process of reaching out to Whitman as “fundamentally beyond my grasp and simultaneously closer than I can conceive.” This idea is a familiar one to anyone who has experienced loss – the notion of simultaneous presence and absence speaks to love lost and passing time. Carlsmith is seeking to convey the love she feels resonating from Whitman’s poems and, like all authors of love letters, she is reaching out to someone unreachable. However, unlike these ubiquitous sentiments of love that aim to bring the writer closer to their beloved, Carlsmith is emphasizing the gap between herself and Whitman and, ultimately, the gap between life and death.
Carlsmith sees her current work in dialogue with the work of artists Felix Gonzales-Torres and AA Bronson. Like these artists, she is contemplating love and loss. Focusing on the relationship between lover and beloved as analogous to the one between audience and artist, Carlsmith is seeking to interrogate the inherent differences between loving a real, physical being and loving the idea of somebody based entirely on that person’s output. As she states, “in both cases, the lover can fall in love with an imagined person based on what the real person gives them, can feel deeply attached to and understood by that construction, and can, in some ways, hold a kind of power over it, but they cannot access the other person in their true being. There is no perfect connection between people as individuals.” Carlsmith is focusing on and making visible that gap. It is this tragedy of love that she is invested in exploring.
The exploration of love may be a new one for Carlsmith, but this series is, in many ways, a continuation of previous lines of inquiry. Carlsmith’s work is always meticulous in its detail, taking on an indexical quality. It is an archiving of process: an archiving of the act of drawing – of her hand and of time. These drawings are a means for her to render time and make that most elusive of all commodities visible. There is no illusion, no distraction. Carlsmith wants her viewers to become as immersed in the drawings as she was; she wants the act of drawing to be at the forefront.
A recent project, 100 Days of Kimbo Slice (2010), uses the figure of boxer Kimbo Slice as a means to interrogate the ways that we as human beings push ourselves to both physical and mental limits. A street fighter who eventually became a professional boxer and mixed martial artist, Kimbo Slice pushed his body to its physical limits. In the same way, Carlsmith sought to push herself to a limit, repeatedly drawing this figure over 100 days. She describes her drawings as acts of mastery, not virtuosity. Whether it is knowing intimately and expertly how to draw the contours of Kimbo Slice’s face, the shapes of a raisin, or the many angles of an alligator foot, Carlsmith is pushing herself in every one of her drawings. She is, as she notes, flexing a muscle.
One could argue that Carlsmith’s process of drawing is a performative act and the drawing is but the trace remaining from her performance. Recently she has begun to experiment with performance and sound based art, but one thing remains consistent: an emphasis on the process of making the work itself. Like Walt Whitman, Carlsmith will create a body of work over the entirety of her life. And like the Whitman, she states that, “when it’s done, you can see my ghost in it.”
Caroline Carlsmith is an artist living and working in Chicago. She received a dual degree BFA and BA in Visual Critical Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009. Her work has been featured in exhibitions at The Hills Esthetic Center (Chicago), Pentagon Gallery (Chicago), The Co-Prosperity Sphere (Chicago), and Rena Sternberg Gallery (Glencoe), among many others. Carlsmith’s work will be featured in a show at Roxaboxen Exhibitions opening on May 4 and she will be exhibiting Calamus in a group exhibition at Alderman Exhibitions in August 2012.