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Artist Michael Carson Captures the Enigmatic Beauty of the Human Form

Michael Carson in front of his painting “Sweet Blues.” About his subject matter, he says, “I’m gravitating toward intimate nightclub scenes. When I’m traveling, I go to cool places at night, and those will sneak into my work.”

Phoenix artist Michael Carson’s paintings of enigmatic people in ambiguous situations have earned him a worldwide following.

By Paula M. Bodah | Photography courtesy of Bonner David Galleries

There’s an irresistible quality to Michael Carson’s work. His paintings—soft, shadowy and impressionistic, rendered in muted neutral tones that blur the edges between his figures and the backgrounds—do more than simply invite you to look. They make you want to step into them, to eavesdrop on those figures, to get them to tell their stories. “I don’t like to create an obvious narrative,” the Phoenix-based artist says. “What people see is how they feel when they look at a piece.”

Carson, who grew up in Minnesota, didn’t set out to be a painter at all. In fact, during his four years at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he never made a single painting. “I was a design student,” he says. “I spent my time on computers.” 

Seven or so years into his career as a product designer, a stop into a museum in the Netherlands changed his life. “I saw a painting I loved so much, I said, ‘I have to try that’,” he recalls. “When I got home, I bought the cheapest canvas and paints I could find, did one painting, and quit my job maybe 40 days later.”

“Paris,” 54"H by 77"W, oil on canvas. The figures in Carson’s pieces are composites of models he’s photographed and images culled from online and magazines. “I might pull 20 images to make five figures,” he says.
Carson works in various media, including sculpting. The 49.5-inch-tall “Bluff” is crafted of bronze and wood.

That first painting sold quickly. “That started the ball rolling, and I began schlepping my work everywhere, to restaurants and bars and coffee shops all over Minneapolis.”

Carson found he learned best through imitation. “When I watched an artist paint, the magic was gone, and I could do it myself,” he says. “In a four-day workshop I could evolve my painting in a way that would take me years on my own.”

As accomplished as he was becoming, however, he felt he lacked something. Imitation had begun to stand in the way of developing his own unique style. “When people started saying I was ripping off other artists, I realized I needed to find something that felt like me.”

It was an evolutionary process. “A lot of it is the actual physicality of your own body,” Carson explains. “We all walk differently, dance differently, and we paint differently, too. It took a very long time to create this thing that felt like me.”

His singular style is characterized by loose, free brushstrokes, a limited palette ranging from off-white to dark gray with the occasional shot of color, and a focus on figures, most often women.
“The female form is a classic subject matter,” notes Christi Bonner Manuelito, cofounder of Bonner David Galleries, which has represented Carson for two decades. “I have a twin sister, and I grew up with all women, so his paintings are very endearing to me, personally,” she adds.

They’re meaningful to people all over the world. “David has sold to collectors in Hong Kong, Europe and England,” Manuelito says. “People are just really drawn to him.

“Bleachers,” 64"H by 63"W, oil on canvas. “The edges, where the figure meets the background, are an important part of my work,” Carson says. “The negative space is where the interest is.”
“Weighting,” 48"H by 36"W, oil on panel

Among those locally who find his art hard to resist is collector Mark Hawkins, who counts seven pieces by Carson in his Phoenix home. “David does a very nice job of silhouettes, and his figures are just cool,” Hawkins says. “His work’s got kind of a cool factor, and so does he.”

Carson just wrapped up an exhibition at Bonner David’s Scottsdale branch and is planning a spring show at the gallery’s New York City location. For the East Coast show, he says, he’ll take the large oil-on-canvas figurative works in a slightly different direction. “They’re going to be darker, moodier pieces with more multifigure compositions.”

That said, he doesn’t like to think too far ahead. “I can tell you I’m going to go in one direction, but when I get into the studio, it’s just what I feel like doing right then,” he says. “I prefer not to plan the future of my work.”

“Pink Chairs,” 66"H by 80"W, oil on canvas. The artist uses a muted palette deliberately. “I’ve shrunken my spectrum of value, from off-white to dark gray,” he says. “The paintings have a kind of faded quality, a muted effect that gives them a sense of a different time period.”
“Musical Chairs,” 48"H by 36"W, oil on panel.

Artist: Michael Carson, represented by Bonner David Galleries, Scottsdale,


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