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A Man, a Plan, a Planer

Artist Dustin Carlson fabricates icons of the American Dream

Photo: Micheal Northrup, License: N/A

Micheal Northrup

Photo: Eddie Winter, License: N/A

Eddie Winter

Cowboys and Engines

Shows at Gallery Four through Oct. 30.

The gallery is open Saturdays from noon to 5:00 P.M. or by appointment.

For more information, visit

The elevator doors that open onto Gallery Four, on the fourth floor of the H&H Building, reveal a striking scene. Three large-scale color photographs—one of Death Valley, one of the Mojave Desert, and one of Monument Valley—border the room. The images are printed on vinyl and appear in the guise of meticulously reproduced Clear Channel billboards, complete with billboard lighting and serial numbers along the bottom. (Walk around the back of the billboards and the illusion persists.) Three sets of worn, duct-taped Ford F-150 truck seats face them, as if lined up on a highway or at the drive-in. An aural wash of automated metal-brushing-metal and a rhythmic clanking are audible from the rooms beyond. Welcome to Cowboys and Engines, a solo show by Gallery Four founder Dustin Carlson.

Carlson, a bearded, unassuming 33-year-old, moves about the space with an accustomed ease. He has lived and worked there since 1996, when he and fellow artist Jason Hughes moved in as teenagers. “We noticed that there was a lot of talent in Baltimore from all over the country, and there was really no place for them to show here,” Carlson says. “A few alternative spaces would show up, but they were really not bringing it to a professional level, not a space you’d want do put on your resume.”

Fifteen years ago, what is now a 10,000-square-foot wood-floored, white-walled series of rooms with six artist-in-residence live/work spaces was an unfinished warehouse. But Carlson and others were soon renovating and showing their work there, and in 2000, Gallery Four was officially born. It has since steadily gained renown, featuring shows that have included the likes of Dan Steinhilber and Gary Kachadourian, as well as artists from across the country and beyond. But despite Carlson’s long involvement with the gallery, Cowboys and Engines is the first solo show of his own work at Gallery Four. “Self-promotion is a weird thing, and I don’t know how it’s going to be perceived by other artists and the community at large,” he says. “Does it sort of defeat the purpose of the work that you’ve been trying to do to create this space?”

Skeptics are unlikely to hold a grudge once they’ve seen Carlson’s show. Composed of just five large pieces, it bears the imprint of a skilled artist and curator. From “Vista,” the billboard installation, to the last piece, an eerie tableau of working replicas of oil pumps, the source of most of the ambient noise, one has the feeling a story is unfolding. That story, in part, concerns the American Dream, its commodification and dependence on finite resources. But there is an undercurrent of beauty throughout, because the pieces themselves are so well-crafted and thoughtfully designed. Carlson doesn’t drag in an existing billboard or oil pump or ice machine or exhaust pipe; he recreates them, warped slightly by his own aesthetic and his memory of the object. (His work is so convincing that two tipsy women at the show’s opening tried to wrest open the nonfunctioning door of the ice machine—titled “Polar Ice”—in order to insert a bag of melting ice that was actually part of the piece.) The results have a prototypical, iconic feel, and a craftsmanship that commands attention.

After “Vista,” one passes into another room and encounters “Island,” a concrete-like island topped by two gas pumps. Fabricated from sheet metal, rubber tubing, and nozzles, they are red, white, and blue with a pleasing tapered design one rarely finds in a real gas station. Carlson admits there is an element of nostalgia to the show. “I’ve looked at some of the old things like that that have this style, where now it’s all about function,” he says. “There’s that aspect of actually making something and thinking about it and caring about what you’re making . . . I think that’s been lost.” The space on the face of the machine where the cost and quantity of fuel would appear is disconcertingly blank.

“Polar Ice” comes next, and then, bolted incongruously to the wall, comes “Idle,” two tall tractor trailer exhaust pipes with cartoonish chattering rain caps, the source of the clanging that permeates the gallery. Suddenly, elements of the room that are not part of the show—the pipes on the walls, the fire extinguisher, the red metal alarm box—take on life. The noise swells from the last room, where a herd of six oil pumps labor like exhausted animals, like the engine driving the rest of the show. This is Carlson’s “Perpetual motion machine,” which he built from steel and motors purchased at a surplus store. The wells are powered by solar panels.

Carlson first conceived Cowboys and Engines three or four years ago, but constructed most of the pieces in just a two-month span. “With anything, it’s just research,” he says. “I tried paying very close attention to billboards. I just stared at billboards and ice machines for a long time. And I did a lot of looking at oil pumps and researching.” A former MICA painting major—he dropped out—Carlson says he’s always been into rendering. As a child growing up in Indiana, he learned some construction skills from his father and got into building his own speakers as a teenager. Much of his work incorporates engineering and sounds. “I’m pretty good with math, especially for an artist,” he says.

Carlson makes a living building exhibits for museums. He started years ago, with cases and pedestals, but has since moved on to more elaborate pursuits, such as cantilevered staircases and floating ceilings. He employs several other artists in an industrial space in East Baltimore that is fully outfitted with tools and equipment, and he works with numerous prominent museums. He built the Civil War case at the Maryland Historical Society and was recently unavailable by cell phone because he was “installing at the Pentagon.”

These pursuits helped Carlson learn the technical skills that inform his current show, and have also helped keep Gallery Four, which is funded out-of-pocket, alive and vibrant. The gallery is run by its inhabitants, with no particular aim toward commercial success. “This space functions as a laboratory for artists and curators and artist-curators,” Carlson says. “You can do things that are not normally possible in other galleries. Large-scale works sometimes aren’t shown because they’re not likely to sell, or it’s just not that kind of space.”

In the beginning, Carlson, Hughes, and other collaborators viewed the space as a sort of stepping stone for artists who were not able to get shows at other local galleries but were doing work of a caliber that deserved one. He says more established local galleries had a tendency to ignore artists who had not already been blessed by the New York establishment. Hughes left Gallery Four in 2007 to pursue other projects, and the space has taken on a slightly different function than it once had, Carlson says. While the gallery is still a venue for emerging artists, mid-career types are now often in the mix as well. “In some ways I think it’s become a pretty important institution,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of places on the East Coast that allow an artist the kind of freedoms and the kind of scale that we do.”

Carlson has at times felt frustrated by the amount of time he spends on other people’s artwork at the expense of his own. In response, last year he created the Bicycle Galleries. They are what they sound like: movable galleries—with 4-foot-by-4-foot walls for exhibiting hanging pieces and a platform for sculptural works—on the back of bike trailers. Last year, Carlson trundled the galleries around Artscape and took them to Art Basel, Miami, Fla.’s contemporary art fair. They are, at once, platforms for art and pieces of art themselves. Like much of Carlson’s work, they share a combination of playfulness, clean design, and craftsmanship.

Despite his occasional frustrations, Carlson says he’ll likely always be both artist and curator. “It’s how I think,” he says. “It’s not like I think about one piece. I get excited about an idea. Let’s do something! I don’t see that changing.”

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