The Photorealist paintings of Paul Caranicas (b. 1946) have a limpid quality, as if the monumental architecture he depicts -- and architecture is frequently his subject, often paired with an uncertain, marginal natural landscape -- are transparent illusions rather than masses of concrete and steel. Awesome in scale and precise in their delineation, his skyscrapers seem to breathe with their own ghostly spirit, one that may fade away at any moment.
Caranicas is an ecological artist, whose paintings warn of the depredations of civilization as they celebrate the triumphs of engineering and design. His paintings of abandoned bunkers -- concrete and steel military structures, typically poised at the water’s edge -- both show the folly of war and cast a dim light on the utopian designs of modernism. Another series of works depicting huge, spherical gas storage tanks, titled “Time Bombs,” presents a clear enough warning of the multivalent dangers associated with modern industry.
The artist’s role as Cassandra -- hardly welcome in the sensuous realm of imaginary freedom that is painting -- came to life several weeks ago during the Japan earthquake disaster. One of the many indelible images broadcast around the world showed exactly these kinds of tanks ablaze in an industrial gas storage park, erupting in explosions of flame and black smoke as fireboats vainly trained their hoses on the conflagration. It was an emblem of raw chaos overcoming human rationality.
But Caranicas is not a bard of trauma culture. He is much more artist than activist, which is evident in the wry pleasures that he takes in composing his pictures. It is a formal, creative task that reasserts the potential of human serenity. His paintings of gas tanks, for instance, relish the classic art-school exercise of rendering shadow on a sphere, and indulge his appreciation of all the human details -- struts, latticework, an impressive spiral stairway -- necessary to bring the perfect abstract form into the real world.
His vision of the urban cityscape also involves subtle but sweet painterly indulgences. His vertical panorama of Manhattan Island, Empire (2001), painted from across the river in New Jersey, details the city’s stately urban density, but frames it, Arcadia-style, within the trunks and branches of three silhouetted trees.
Paintings from his “U.N. Series” (2003) show the modernist landmark at its best, from the riverside view, as a perfect glass grid parallel with the picture surface, a formalist emblem surrounded at its edges by the accoutrements of modern life -- humble cinderblock buildings and a surveillance camera in U.N. Series (Surveillance), and a round satellite TV antenna in U.N. Series (Gantry State Park). In both pictures, the bulk of the U.N. structure blocks out the Chrysler Building, a relic of what was perhaps a more ornate modernist vision.
In Caranicas’ masterful “Ozone Series,” done in the last five or ten years, he gently sends up the arrogance and grandiosity of political culture via its own triumphal monuments. Ozone 21 (Empire Plaza 3) (2010) is set in Empire State Plaza in Albany, a much-maligned white elephant built during the governorship of Nelson Rockefeller.
The edges of the picture are cluttered with emblems of man’s achievements -- from girders and high-wires to waste treatment facilities and a port full of shipping containers (and even a Minimalist sculpture) -- scattered about like so many toys in a Brobdignagian landscape. At the ethereal center of the picture is empty sky -- the “hole in the ozone” -- but in the artist’s world on the canvas, this blue painterly space doubles as a path to heaven, a sign of the possibility of transcendence.
Paul Caranicas, “A Survey: From the Center to the Edge 1980-2010,” Mar. 3-26, 2011, at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, 37 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.