Self Organizing Principle Surfaces in Carbee Art

Carbee Seeds Canvases and Lets Them Grow

Working from both coasts, enduring and prolific American artist Marshall Carbee discovered something ancient. In recent years, his canvases reveal the discovery of what he terms an “eternal perspective” or timeless truth; a goal which Socrates defined as eternal, unchanging and absolute. An exuberant and diligent Carbee delved into a new territory based on fundamental certainties – the yield of beauty in color, composition and pattern after the combustion of chance is put into play; when canvases seeded with poured paint are left to elemental forces out-of-doors. 


Reputed for his vivid, colorful artworks, he began experimenting with the effects of the outdoor environment on art surfaces in the 1980s. Leaving his watercolor-on-paper artworks to the beach and tides, he immediately sensed the vibrancy of an artist-and-nature collaboration. Shifting the media from paper to canvas, and from watercolors to custom-made paints, Carbee immediately seized upon the pairing, resulting in a riveting and ongoing series of artworks. 


“I usher a geological event on the canvas. It's the same vocabulary; precipitation, erosion, sedimentation, evaporation and accretion. I make paint with earth pigments and sea water or rain water and then seed the canvas with paint. Like a farmer, I allow the canvas to self- organize, grow. With exposure to the elements – the natural forces of the rain, wind, sunlight, mist, snow, ice – the canvas transforms into a landscape, a star field, river deltas, the orbits of planets, deserts, the sea.”

“What took millions of years on earth and beyond can appear on a canvas in days, weeks and months, instead of millennia.” 

Carbee explains his process as one that taps into a universal concept of beauty in nature, a process where he introduces a variety of raw materials to the canvas and abandons it for a time, allowing the art-making to the elements. Carbee is informed in part by his friend, Venezuelan painter Carlos Sosa, German painter, Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel, expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, Vicci Sperry and Carbee's lifelong teacher, Robert Eshoo. Academically, Carbee’s ‘man + elements’ art falls into a category of Neo-Expressionism.  

“What I see over and over is a self organizing principle at work. The ice crystallization of paint, for instance, or the way a combination of paint and ink moves across the surface of the canvas from the push and pull of the wind, leaving patterns that look like the capillaries of a river system or a freezing planetary surface.”

​ “We see a self organizing principle in the planetary orbits of our solar system that we now know was birthed from chaos. Whether the familiar spiral of a snail shell or the firmament that hangs above the sea, the nature of life is beautiful on a grand and micro scale."

“We know planetary forces influence the tides. The sun, the moon, the rain, the wind, ocean water, glacial ice and time create mountains, canyons, rivers, deserts, clouds and stars. It's a simple code of self-organization that reflects its unique self on different scales over and over. These same systems help me create these paintings. I use the same elements, materials and the same systems; sun, wind, rain, erosion, tides, beach sand ocean water and earth pigments; only on a different scale. The artist gives up control to something infinitely more powerful. The artist controls time, the canvases become micro-geological events that always yield images of earth, sky and sea.”

Left raw to the whims of the elements, Carbee’s painted canvases also respond to the imprints of leaves, flowers and blades of grass.  The introduction of small stones, beach sand, muscovite, and sea water lend a sparkling patina to the canvas, creating other worldly star-scapes. Other canvases express a blue-green,

“I see a repetition in the paintings. They offer micro and macro views of the sky, sea and earth. In the paintings you see views of earth from space, and space from earth. You see the world through the lens of an electron microscope.  The art is unforced and organic, not symbolic. It makes a copy of the world itself, over and over, if seeded properly.”

 The variables are considerable – how much time the canvas is left outside and in what atmospheric conditions. Where the paintings are seeded matters. Carbee now makes them in New England and in California and sees a difference in the artwork. “There is never rain or a freeze in California; it’s very sunny and hot and is a great atmosphere for high speed results. Where I work now, on the seacoast of New Hampshire, in New England, there’s a ever-changing beach climate, ocean airs, snows, thaws, rain storms, sub-zero temperatures and high heat and humidity, too. Lots of weather going on.” 

The best part for Carbee is the unexpected metamorphosis, the accidental transformation he finds on the canvases. Similar to making and acing a recipe with just a list of some of the ingredients and without time frames. “You never know, really, what will happen. You can’t control the accident. If you want more accidents to happen, you need to take more risk, and when I started increasing the risk, the work became more dynamic.”

“My ugly duckling paintings are a great example of this transformation. I dragged this one very ugly canvas around for a year. I left it outside all summer long then I noticed it was cracking and flaking so I used a garden hose to blast off the crusty surface, revealing a gorgeous sub-surface. A total, unexpected surprise. It was the ugly duckling."

Another time, on Valentine's Day, Carbee rinsed off a painting, loosening a leaf adhered to the surface, and discovered a heart pattern underneath.  With more rinsing he uncovered a dazzling design under more layers of paints and botanicals.“It’s all so crazy and beautiful. Nature always beats the artist, hands down. There is no contest. No matter how good a painter you are, the outside forces of nature on the canvas always wins. I love my collaboration with nature.”

Geological events on canvas

"FOR MANY YEARS I have been convinced that something occurs in the creative working of the imagination that is more fundamental—but more puzzling—than we have assumed in contemporary psychology. In our day of dedication to facts and hard-headed objectivity, we have disparaged imagination: it gets us away from “reality”; it taints our work with “subjectivity”; and, worst of all, it is said to be unscientific. As a result, art and imagination are often taken as the “frosting” to life rather than as the solid food. No wonder people think of “art” in terms of its cognate, “artificial,” or even consider it a luxury that slyly fools us, “artifice.” Throughout Western history our dilemma has been whether imagination shall turn out to be artifice or the source of being.

What if imagination and art are not frosting at all, but the fountainhead of human experience? What if our logic and science derive from art forms and are fundamentally dependent on them rather than art being merely a decoration for our work when science and logic have produced it? These are the hypotheses I propose here."

- Rollo May, The Courage To Create


Ice crystallized paint on canvas

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.

– Aristotle.