There’s an odd dichotomy at work in the paintings of Charles Ladson. He fills his canvases with semi-representational imagery, often using basic shapes and crude forms, yet they can achieve a sense of precision and thoroughness, right down to the varicolored grass in a suburban yard where the new growth mingles with old.
A painter of landscapes and interiors who is showing 15 new works at Nüart Gallery’s exhibit Perspectives, Ladson isn’t really painting details. He’s capturing the rudiments of a scene: a school playground, the corner of a room with hardwood floors, or items in haphazard arrangement beside a trash bin, to mention a few. Although these and other compositions read as being rich in detail, Ladson isn’t striving for photo-realism so much as a feeling or tone. The shapes and forms — some recognizable, some not — are reductive.
“When I’m pulling stuff out of thin air, simplifying makes it a lot easier to realize those forms,” said the 44-year-old artist from his home in Macon, Georgia. Ladson is a process-oriented artist. He rarely works from photographs, yet his paintings have a distinct sense of place despite containing a high degree of abstraction. These evocative works, somewhat reminiscent of the Precisionist paintings of the American Modernist Charles Demuth, are perceived as representations of scenes from life, mainly through a process of addition and subtraction. He layers the paint, scrapes it away, and layers again. He sands between the layers, letting the colors beneath the topmost layers emerge. In this way, he gives elements of his compositions the tactile quality of real objects occupying actual space — objects that look like they’ve been aged and weathered by time.
“I really put a lot of time into these things, but when I start a painting, I don’t have any preconception of what I’m doing,” he said with a slight Southern drawl. “I usually have, like, five or six blank canvases, and it’s scary to me to be looking at that, so I just have to start working and the painting develops.”
Ladson developed an appreciation for art at a young age. His grandfather, who he described as a “Sunday painter,” had a collection of art books that ranged from the Italian Renaissance to the early 20th-century modernists. Ladson’s mother was also an art history major. He learned to draw from his grandfather and had a natural talent for it. Encouraged by his friends, he signed up for an advanced placement art class in high school. But when it came time for college, he had no plan to study art.
“I went to the College of Charleston, originally,” he said. “I didn’t do well there, and they asked me to leave. I flunked out, basically.”
In the mid-1990s, he earned a BFA from the School of Visual Arts — a New York-based institution that had opened a satellite branch at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Then he earned a master of fine arts degree at the University of Georgia.
“For about three years after that, I didn’t paint at all. Then I thought, ‘I’m going to make a go of this.’ ”
Ladson submitted some works for publication to New American Paintings and was accepted. A gallery in Asheville, North Carolina, saw them and invited him to do a showing.
“I’ve been painting ever since. It just kind of fell together that way.”
Ladson’s paintings have an enigmatic quality. While they are prosaic on one level and depict ordinary objects like a cardboard box on the floor of a room or an empty wooden frame leaning on the wall near a light socket, they often have elements of the unexpected: a placement of an object in a scene that makes you question what it’s doing there, or shapes that are difficult to discern, leaving the viewer to question what exactly they are.
In the painting A Few Things, for instance, the shape of an animal, possibly a household pet, can be ascertained, but its nature is indeterminate. It’s possibly a cat, but maybe it’s a small dog. In Wheelie, a brown jug and the bust of a man sit on the ground beside a wheeled trash receptacle. The bust is the sort of thing you might see in a traditional still life. But in Wheelie, it seems to have more of a story to tell.
“I’ve got to have something to hold the viewer and something to hold me,” he said. “If there’s something strange and sort of mysterious, or more emotive in it, I like that. In my more figurative work, I can realize that. Sometimes people read something into these things, and I think that’s good. It might get someone to pause and think for a moment. But it’s just random thoughts and ideas that I have.”
Ladson’s paintings draw you in with their familiarity, their recognizable features, and a nonthreatening sense of mundanity. But then they upend expectations. They surprise you with something that lies just out of reach of comprehension: an abstract element that’s on the verge of being representational so that you want to put a name to it but can’t.
“I really invent a lot of things,” he said. “I try to jazz it up and put something unpredictable in there.”
It takes Ladson about a month to complete a four-by-four-foot painting. He’s open and honest about the process, which he admits can be challenging, even frustrating. Viewers may be lulled into the belief that an artist makes painting look so easy. Ladson insists that it’s not.
“To this day, it’s like pulling teeth,” he said. “I won’t let anyone into my studio because I’m so embarrassed of them for the time it takes to make them. Some friends of mine, they come up with this composition and take a photograph of it and blow it up on a projector and trace it, paint it, and then they’re done. I can’t do that. It’s always moving. It’s like a living organism. But from the first mark on the canvas, and for an entire month, it’s me pulling my hair out. I have moments where I think it’s pretty good and it looks right but then the next day it looks like garbage again, and I’m just back at it until it finally has that thing that — I don’t know what it is — but it seems all right at the end. There’s a moment when it clicks and I just know it feels right.” ◀
▼ Charles Ladson: Perspectives
▼ Artist talk 4 p.m., reception 5 p.m. Friday, June 7; through June 23
▼ Nüart Gallery, 670 Canyon Road, 505-988-3888, nuartgallery.com