Cara Tomlinson: One to Other: Paintings, Objects, and Drawings

Cara Tomlinson is a painter’s painter. She has an innate understanding of the way paint works in all its richness, its physicality, and its ability to be a vehicle for visualizing and realizing a world within the four edges of a canvas. Painting allows her to establish a creative space where thoughts can remain purely visual and preverbal. It is in this intuitive, liminal space that Tomlinson thrives. When seeing the work in the exhibition, the viewer is also keenly aware that the artist has intentionally allowed her paintings to show how one step leads to the next. One sees the passing of time in carefully considered, subtle layers. Each studio session gives rise to new marks or passages. We are mindful that each day in the studio is different, in the same way one can never stand in the same river twice. Formed in large part by the previous day’s work, the pieces chronicle the ever-changing condition of her environment, as well as her artistic temperament. For many years Tomlinson has used her studio practice to map her mental and physical landscape while exploring her own imaginative space. The works show formal and structural realizations, providing a site for investigation that is a part of Tomlinson’s quiet quest to find and build an understanding of the way the world works.

Tomlinson’s images are born from the myriad influences and disparate sources she draws from to build her visual vocabulary. Elements taken from geology, childhood memories, art history, cartography, and improvised architecture come together, providing a glimpse into the artist’s psychological and spiritual state of mind. As we, the viewers, examine these images we see Tomlinson’s tendency to approach painting with a series of contradictory moves. On one day there appears to be a need to pare down, followed by a response in the form of elaborate solutions; there is an urge to either intensify or subdue a color’s chroma, or to build and then erase. These dramatic pendulum swings of contradiction describe the doubt that is at the very heart of her practice. As the paintings document the artist’s decisions, we can almost hear Tomlinson’s dialogue with them, asking: “Is this right? What about this?” In doing so, Tomlinson is gently nudging the painting toward home. This strategy leads to the paintings’ instinctual, unrehearsed quality that is discovered rather than planned out. (After all, what is the point of mapping one’s subconscious space if one already has all the answers?) Any given layer of the painting is a response to the layer beneath, as if the Cara Tomlinson from last week were leaving signposts or obstacles for the Cara Tomlinson of today to wrestle with. She describes her paintings as “time capsules” that serve as repositories layered to describe all the decisions made over the course of the months or years that go into each of them.[i]

The accumulated strata are realized in a similar way in the sculptural objects in the exhibition. We see heaps of paint laid down not in an illusionistic sense, but in a tactile way, creating literal piles of paint. The paint is stacked on differing sized wood blocks with a gooey, sensual physicality that is at once seductive and repulsive. An irregular nugget of fleshy pigment comes into the world slowly, one stroke of paint at a time. Her freestanding, squat structures are, like buildings, constructed from the ground up and lend themselves perfectly to the artist’s desire to examine life’s strata. A peculiar dialogue emerges when the paintings and sculptures are installed in the same space.  Born from similar desires, the sculptures and paintings share a specific color palette and sense of architectural structure. The paintings on the wall seem to hover above the Earth-bound structures on their little, wheeled platforms. The addition of potential mobility adds a tickle of whimsy to these otherwise heavy forms.

In creating this world within the edges of the canvas, our artist-as-cartographer presents a particular view of her world, the view as seen through her very specific lens. Tomlinson adds the additional, challenging task of presenting the viewer a map that reconciles the cumulative effects of time. The pieces are finished only when there is the realization on the part of the artist that she has found the point of rightness, and the image in some way describes the reason she started the work in the first place. In these pieces we find the artist building a common ground where the simple and the complex, the seductive and the repulsive, the organic and the man-made are inextricably linked just as they are in the real world. In her labors to visually and formally reconcile the ever-changing landscape of her mind, Tomlinson presents the viewer with the insights gained from her wonderful endeavors as she slowly moves towards the truth.

Hamlett Dobbins, Director, Clough-Hanson Gallery

[i] Cara Tomlinson’s statement regarding the 2010-11 large paintings found at

All images are courtesy the artist.

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