Coastal Textures: Carl Couchman

(c) 2012 Carl Couchman

Carl Couchman drives the black truck he calls TMAX past some familiar geography in Coastal Textures, now showing at the Pacific Grove Art Center, Monterey, California. The California coast starting at Point Lobos may seem by some to be haunted by the pale-white ghost of Edward Weston, yet Couchman finds new roads as he shares his view of sites such as Mystery Canyon at Sea Ranch and Pistol River in Oregon.

Press coverage of the exhibit has highlighted the Dunes at Coos Bay, an 8x10 high-key print of a white vertical massif, rising to within a measureable inch of the sky, finished by a bright line atop the dunes. Unlike the icing on volcanic Thera, there is no hint of Aegean blue respite. The dunes themselves star here: they wave and fold like cool sheets, and while they briefly beckon Charis Wilson, Weston's muse is not needed in this frame.

Around the Corner (Bandon, Oregon) promises the rainbow with an arc of light splaying from the dense granite shelf looming from the right of the frame, but dissolves into smooth mist and a rocky islet. An apparition occupies and claims the line between sand, sea, and sky.

Sand Patterns (Pistol River, Oregon) is a series of mostly smooth, high-key images, yet the most striking one departs the motif and features dark sand, scalloped and raked by wind and surf, upwelling to end in a wash of dune meeting the white sky. Hands and tendrils reach out through the sand, bringing the eye to the dark, close-cropped gritty foreground at the bottom. All of the prints in this traditional-process exhibit are masterfully grainless, so the historical reference to film grain here is unmistakable and playful.

Although the landscape is the focus of most of this series, sharply-defined objects appear in a few prints, pointing the way to Bird Tracks in Pescadero, or providing a head-tilt moment as an uncut White Stone digs itself a shield against the shallow waves of peppered sand. Descending Kelp is the culmination of these two motifs, and punctuates the grain from Sand Patterns, with a round, squid-like kelp bulb and the white swath it drags on the sand.

Driftwood in Pescadero, and the gnarled trees of Sea Ranch are studies with perhaps fainter echoes of the environs, but two other series of prints in this exhibit show what can happen when Couchman attends to his own unique vision.

In the first, a triptych of objets trouvés evokes Westonia, with a pair of marine shells flanking the treasure, a sly, breathtaking print that is a riff on the famous pepper. Neither animal nor vegetable, Melted Candle is rich in midtones, organic detail and hints at Georgia O'Keefe's florals, while raising its own questions about how we find — and create — beauty in form.

This theme is exposed more directly in the playful TMAX the Truck series, the only exhibit wall with an accompanying artist's statement. The most successful of these prints are close-cropped abstract compositions, with Origination and Stripes Detail taking the crown. Origination, luminous in the original print, takes us far from the coast and the swirls of sand and kelp, and presents a window onto what might be a snowstorm from an early 20th century Japanese woodblock print. A strong rectilinear structure divides the frame into quadrants, where the dark background plays the foil for the softened shapes of decay.

I hope Couchman continues driving TMAX the truck up and down the California and Oregon coast, stopping to photograph what others have looked at, but not seen.

Pacific Grove Art Center, Monterey, California, 568 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove, CA 93950 Coastal Textures silver-gelatin prints until February 24th - April 5th, 2012

Leigh L. Klotz, Jr.