Craig Carlisle's intimate paintings branch out from the artist's signature heads

The Nashville-via-Columbus artist's new body of work at Sarah Gormley Gallery came out of a desire for human contact after pandemic isolation

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"It Was All Just a Dream" (16x20, oil on linen, 2021) by Craig Carlisle

In the 1990s, when Craig Carlisle still lived in Columbus, he created a series of paintings that focused on the human head. The faces tended to be androgynous, usually with no hair or ears — just a mouth, nose and large eyes. The images zeroed in on human emotion and expression.

Over the years, as Carlisle has made his home in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and now Nashville, the big heads have become one of his artistic calling cards. But this year, as Carlisle began painting in his studio, the heads began to take on new dimensions. For one, they were no longer merely heads. Arms and hands began to show up alongside a recurring pair of faces that were often touching in tentative, intimate ways.

“I was doing these paintings, and now people are vaccinated. We're going out into the world, and it's awkward. Do you touch or do you not touch? Do you hug somebody or do you not hug somebody? Do you say you're vaccinated or not vaccinated? It’s all this relearning how to be social. And everything's changed. The world has changed,” said Carlisle, a 1988 CCAD grad. “That's coming out in the canvases. The paintings where they're holding each other [represent] a longing to hold again, to touch again. I'm not in a relationship, so therefore I’m longing to be in one and longing to hold somebody again. … They’re paintings of how I want my life to be versus how it really is.”

Carlisle’s recent oil paintings are on display at Sarah Gormley Gallery (open this week on Saturday, Nov. 27, and by appointment). “This is leaps and bounds beyond what I've done in the past because I'm actually creating a narrative,” said Carlisle, who began to see characters and a story emerging in the paintings.

"Floral Muse" (12x16, oil on canvas, 2021) by Craig Carlisle

In addition to the works with heads and hands and arms, visitors to the gallery will also find paintings featuring a princess and a lion (and sometimes a tiger). The fantastical images correspond to poems and stories from Carlisle’s journals; often, the artist will include his writings on the reverse side of the painting it inspired.  

Carlisle named the princess Fairest Lavender and the lion Vetiver, both of whom correspond to the heads in the other paintings. “When either goes into a dream state, that's when the lion and the princess emerge,” Carlisle said. “I work a lot from dreams and fantasy.” 

In the painting “Fairest Lavender Beholding the Rapturous Light,” the princess sits atop Vetiver holding a nest filled with eggs. “She's riding so proudly on his back, and he's just in bliss. It’s this exhibition of showing off Fairest Lavender,” Carlisle said, noting the thunder clouds and lightning in the background of the painting. “You have to be prepared for the storm. … Enjoy the moment because it doesn't always stay.”

"Fairest Lavender Beholding the Rapturous Light" (24x30, oil on linen, 2021) by Craig Carlisle

One such moment occurs in “Sacred Love,” which depicts Lavender with a dagger on the bloodline that connects her to Vetiver, who is in tears. The princess also appears to be giving affection to a tiger, whose paw wraps around her arm.  

“Vetiver’s duty in life is to serve Princess Lavender. So if Vetiver were to stray or look elsewhere, she would cut off the blood source that connects the two hearts together. … She has the sword on the bloodlines going between their two hearts. She's not cutting it, but she's letting him know that she's in charge and that she could cut it if she wanted to,” Carlisle said. “When the tiger comes in, that's the antagonist. The tiger is the jealousy. She has her head resting on the tiger's neck, and she is more physically intimate with the tiger than the lion, so the lion is getting rejected.” 

Elsewhere, in “Fear Not,” a tiger interrupts the picnic of Lavender and Vetiver, who appear in human form. “In life, as you're trying to create a relationship with someone, there seems to always be that someone else out there who creates jealousy or the fear of somebody else coming in and taking someone you love away,” Carlisle said. “It's one of the deadly sins, jealousy.”

"Sacred Love" (10x12, oil on linen, 2021) by Craig Carlisle

Various other symbols make their way into the work, such as the snake tattoos in “Serpent in the Rose Garden” and the vines that often wrap around the characters’ ring fingers in other paintings. And while the meanings behind these paintings are intensely personal (“There's always a muse in the artist’s life,” Carlisle said), they’re also intended to be universal. The best part, he said, is when people “create their own stories of what they see. I'd much rather listen to people tell me what they see versus me telling them what I think it is.” 

As a whole, when Carlisle looks at the body of work at Sarah Gormley Gallery, whether it’s two heads cheek to cheek or a princess alongside a lion, he sees intimacy and closeness in motion. “They all feel like they're dancing together,” he said. “Not making love, but dancing. That longing to hold each other. To dance.”