Ordinary and Extraordinary
Charles Ladson’s painting evokes questions, mysteries, and maybe makes us a little uncomfortable
By Rachael Pigg-Wisher
Photography by Matt Odom
If you’re looking for a mundane still-life to adorn your living room wall, Charles Ladson may not be your cup of tea. If, however, you have a taste for art that leaves you asking and seeking – not answering and finding – Ladson’s ambiguous, non-objective paintings are sure to catch your eye.
A Macon resident, Ladson has garnered national attention for his work, and said he attempts to create art “that leaves more questions than answers.”
A master in oils, Ladson described his style as “falling into a generalist objective camp, with spaces that are warped or twisted in some way.” He decries having a specific narrative or commentary in his work, but does prefer that the contents of his paintings be “recognizable.”
And so they are – corners, floorboards, shoes, chairs, faucets, boxes, bags – all ordinary and recognizable forms. Yet, at the same time they are otherworldly – simultaneously concrete and ethereal. Pretty cool “stuff,” which, interestingly, is one of his painting’s titles.
Born in Macon, Ladson attributed various local sources for his burgeoning artistic talent, most notably Wesleyan College, where he attended art classes growing up, heard lectures from visiting professors and now teaches adjunct drawing classes. He also fondly recalled visiting the Museum of Arts and Sciences as a boy, and being inspired by its Midsummer Macon classes.
“As a child growing up here, I had a general interest in drawing, and my teachers and peers encouraged me. Off and on through elementary and high school, I would dabble in paint, and my parents maybe saw that I had a little interest. I took some lessons, but never anticipated it would be a career for me,” he said.
After graduating from Stratford Academy, Ladson attended the College of Charleston, where he found himself increasingly disenchanted with the liberal arts education. He quickly realized that he wanted to paint, so he enrolled in the Savannah satellite campus of The School of Visual Arts, and eventually transferred to the school’s New York campus, where he completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1999. The young artist stayed in New York, where he worked construction, before enrolling in graduate school at the University of Georgia.
As a graduate teaching assistant in Athens, Ladson had the pleasure of teaching undergraduate classes as well as traveling to Italy, where he also taught for a semester. He remained in Athens after achieving his Master’s in Painting and Drawing, until he decided to return to his roots in 2005.
“I found myself very alone in Athens after graduate school. My friends from the program had all left town,” he said. “I had seriously considered moving to New York City, but I decided to come home. I think I made the right decision.”
For the next two years, he used his artistic and practical work experience on a new Macon venture –renovating an older home where he eventually would live with his family and create his studio. His move to Macon has proven to be a fruitful one, but Ladson said his biggest challenge is the lack of available art supplies in the area, a common conundrum for local artists.
Despite that challenge, Ladson knew he wanted to live here and paint professionally while exhibiting his art throughout the Southeast. The chance to do so came “out of the blue” when The Blue Spiral Gallery in Asheville, N.C., asked him to exhibit with them. The gallery directors had seen Ladson’s work in a regional edition of the publication, New American Paintings, and immediately recognized his talent.
Since then, Ladson has displayed his art nationally – in galleries stretching from Raleigh, Spartanburg and Huntsville, Ala., to New York and the NuArt Gallery in Santa Fe. Most recently, Ladson’s art was displayed in the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga as part of the fourth installment of the “Hunter Invitational,” a gallery showcasing noteworthy artists in the Southeast. The repeated exhibitions have kept him busy, and he described his creative process as “ugly and frustrating,” with six paintings going at once.
“I’ll rotate them out, then one day I’ll flip one out and it’s done,” he said. “I’m only finished when I’m 100 percent, and I know when I see it, when the pieces and the texture and the parts add up to something greater than the whole.”
He said that Asheville has given him more carte blanche with his subjects than even his exhibitions New York or Santa Fe.
“In Asheville the figure paintings sell well, unlike other galleries that sell more of the landscapes,” he said.
Ironically, the Santa Fe NuArt Gallery directors first approached Ladson because of their interest his figurative work, but after showing the work for some time, they have found it to be a hard sell, calling the figure pieces “too provocative.” Instead, they prefer to show his slightly more conventional landscapes, sans the human form.
Of course, Asheville is notably avant-garde and not surprisingly receptive to Ladson’s more unusual pieces. The Blue Spiral currently displays Ladson’s paintings that include his customary angles and uniquely placed objects, but the human figure also plays a part in these scenes, often surprisingly.
Take for instance “County Line,” where a semi-transparent human figure blends obscurely into the sharper lines that form the rural buildings, houses, roads and boards of the painting. Or “Postpartum,” where a partial female figure emerges amidst a backdrop of horizon, mountains and an ordinary table.
These ordinary objects and forms that characterize his work become subtly extraordinary, veiled in ambiguity. Interestingly, some of Ladson’s repeated images include boxes and bags.
“I like openings,” he said with a laugh. “They are mysterious.”
And that’s his bag, so to speak, the inexplicable pieces of the everyday. It’s something the NuArt Gallery aptly described as a “sense of mystery and stillness, a dream reality steeped in an unknowable past.”
Some art buyers may find Ladson’s ambiguous style a bit disarming, but it’s a dilemma that doesn’t worry him at all: “If people are made uncomfortable by my work, then I must be doing something right.”