Chuck Kelton and Shelton Walsmith Find Cracks in the System

04/19/2010 4:00 AM |

Chuck Kelton takes a break and calls me from his eponymous studio in Union Square. Kelton Labs is weathering yet another sea change in the printmaking industry as commercial projects die out and a wave of new artists roll in. Kelton says, "I just keep adapting. What I do is so specialized; I've been dealing with gelatin silver work for years. My business evolves and de-evolves."

New work from the master black and white photographer, along with canvases by painter Shelton Walsmith, hangs at Causey Contemporary gallery through May 17. The show reflects the past year and a half, during which Kelton's father and two close friends passed away. As a response to this tumultuous period, Kelton says he stripped down and simplified his technique, allowing for texture in some areas, but leaving out subtle details in the process.

Photograms, made popular by artists like Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, make a return in his show, titled Run from View. Using simple items like rocks, slate, branches, and sand, Kelton creates large-scale silver gelatin prints imbued with a quiet intensity. In "Imagined Night" (above left), a white-hot mountain range runs jaggedly along the bottom of the print, while up above, scattered white sandy stars gleam in the tenebrous void. Another photogram, "Tree of No Life," presents an overexposed tree trunk broken at the waist with branches—some connected, some floating nearby—against an unforgiving coal-black backdrop.

In regards to black and white photography, Kelton says, "There is absolutely a romance to it, and sitting in front of a computer doesn't present itself in that same way."

Shelton Walsmith's half of the two-man show, Day for Night, features paintings that echo both Kelton's formal tendencies as well as his emotional state at the time. The greyscale "La Perambulati" series focuses on texture and small, shifting details. In the early 90s Walsmith moved to Europe. He explains, "The main drag in Barcelona from the ocean to the city is called La Perambula." He continues, "It's always stuck with me, this unpopular thing, nostalgia."

"Day for Night," Walsmith explains, is a cinematic term. "If they needed a scene which was a nighttime scene, they would put a filter on the lens and underexpose the film so it looks like they're filming at night." In "La Perambulati 10," grey drips on an over-washed canvas; there's a light texture from the horizontal brush strokes with a focus on the bottom right details. The sides of the "Perambulati" canvases are coated in lurid red. In "La Perambulati 4" (above right), drips of army green move upwards, like tendrils, against the blotched grey canvas. An uneven spine of rocks runs from top to bottom, debris embedded in the rough cracks of a sidewalk. Brush strokes are evident throughout the muted piece. Nearby, though, lies "Ill Corrallo No. 1," a burst of color sandwiched in between the grey. In it, a sunflower and a jellyfish have merged to create an entirely new being, with spindly drips of brown laid against the canvas in strings. A burst of light pink in the bottom left with an agreeable teal nearby help to lighten the mood.

Walsmith owns a studio in Gowanus and runs the event series Yardmeter Editions, in which he pairs artists and writers together on the same evening. He describes his position as that of "Yenta" and says, "The impetus is on performance and people supporting one another rather than trying to secure a venue from some commercial place. The recession has heightened people's sense that that has to happen."

New York can be a harsh and uncompromising city, a place in which commercialism dominates over less remunerative and emotionally complex work. However, both Kelton and Walsmith have, over the years, attempted to foster spaces that work against this idea. Kelton says, "As I get older I try to leave traces of myself behind." Through Kelton Labs and Yardmeter Editions, both artists have found a place to produce challenging work with likeminded colleagues. Through the process they leave a quiet but indelible mark on the art scene here.

(images courtesy the artists, Causey Contemporary)