Visual Memoirs: the Alchemy of Keith Carter

by Edward Osowski

The exhibition Unseen and Rediscovered and its companion publication were presented by the Art League of Houston (Sept. 18 - Oct. 30, 2009) to celebrate Keith Carter being named "Texas Artist of the Year" by the Art League, the first photographer to be given this honor. This exhibition also prefaced three other events in 2009: the publication of Fireflies(Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009) and two concurrent exhibitions at the Witliff Collections at Texas State University, San Marcos (Oct. 17, 2009 - March 13, 2010). And in 2010, Carter has been awarded the Lenses of our Perception Lectureby the Visual Studies program at the University of Houston. He will deliver the lecture the evening of March 24, 2010 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Choosing to avoid the predictable expectations and pitfalls of an exhibition of "greatest hits," Carter and his wife Pat presented something fresh and unexpected. They selected from nearly forty years of work, thirteen images that ranged from 1970 to 2001 and another twenty-one made between 2008 and 2009. The range of work is large; one might have wished for greater concentration, but the variety cannot be faulted.

Space, here, does not allow a close look at each of the five sections that divided the exhibition and catalogue. However, each section presents tantalizing hints of bodies of work left to be exhibited more fully. In Vintage, which gathers seven of his earliest images, one observes Carter training his eye by looking at American masters. In Ear of Corn and Ranchos de Taos (both 1972) Carter experiments with the visual vocabulary of artists as wide-ranging as Wynn Bullock, Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. The romantic delicacy of Bernice Abbott flavors Toy with No Child and Walker Evans' example can be seen in Pine Springs Cafe (both 1972).

the second section that includes six commissioned portraits, includes Horton Foote, another Texas artist whose approach to story-telling finds a visual counterpart in Carter's picture-making. Foote's portrait also introduces the viewer to
what may be called Carter's signature style, the subtle interplay of in- and out-of-focus elements in the photograph. His is a way of dispensing with accurate and precise description for something that might be called the visual equivalent of feeling. This section also includes a wonderful example of just how well Carter employs indirection and suggestion. His portrait of W.B.Yeats offers the poet's writing desk and chair. Here, in photographic soft shadows and imprecise description Carter offers a "ghost" portrait of Yeats and asks the viewer to consider just what constitutes a portrait.

the third section, offers examples of previously exhibited bodies of work - one of which, Splendore di Capelli, or, in translation, The Splendors of Hair, emerges as a body of sensual work. While some of Carter's earliest images focused on women's hair - braided or loose and free - these new works suggest a greater concentration and closer attention to the erotic qualities implicit in the subject.

Arriving at the fourth section, Natural Histories, one finds Carter attempting something new in his picture making: These six photographs are the first works to be exhibited that employ computer manipulation. Existing negatives were scanned, digitized and computer manipulation was then used to produce the images and prints. He combines three bodies of work: pieces from a 1992 project, River Pierce; work from an unpublished series titled Boneyard; and images of lichens on grave markers from Holy Island, Ireland. Carter has used his previous work as starting points for a new narrative project and perhaps more significantly, as a new way of approaching the task of making art itself. Combining, recycling, manipulating and re-working have been the tools of artists for decades. Here Carter presents his efforts in this visual conversation.

The images from River Pierce, before their inclusion and re-imagining, were strange, frightening and disorienting. Here were naked men, women, and groups, often with their bodies covered with muck, making movements through a shallow river. What they depict - a group of human-like beings emerging from the mud of pre-history - makes them both fascinating and troubling.

The activities depicted are equally strange in the new pieces. Carter has stitched them into a body of work that was made at a "graveyard" for airplanes, a location in the Arizona desert where airplanes are shipped when their years of service have ended. Stripped of their function, they resemble beached whales or dead elephants in this odd barren landscape. On second glance, they might be giant versions of children's toys, enormous but powerless.

Layered into these collages are images of the lichens of Irish grave markers that give the impression of "found" images, which in their damaged state provide evidence of events out of time and out of history. These tableaus, made in secret, portray a post-apocalyptic world, one in which human-like beings scramble over objects they cannot identify. It is as if Carter is viewing these activities through a clearing in some forest and recording a world in collapse, a world in which civilization has disappeared, a world where technology no longer holds sway. One thinks of anarchy and destruction.

The dichotomies of civilization versus the untamed are the intellectual ideas becoming the creative building blocks that Carter combines in the concluding group, Ocularia. One notices immediately the size of these works (36 x 36), the largest he has ever exhibited. They are also his first exhibited works in color - the first, in other words, that move well beyond the subtle toning he achieves with photographs printed in his darkroom.

These works stand as gorgeous examples of abstraction, photographic versions of color-field painting. Carter has first used images made in the deep-reaches (and invisible to the human eye) of space with the Hubble Space Telescope. He has digitally added to them images of the interior of his own left eye, again a space invisible to the human eye without special tools. These are images of what lies beyond and within an eye which a year before was diagnosed with a vision reducing condition.

Natural Histories
announced a dramatic shift in the materials and processes of Carter's picture-making. Ocularia takes those changes and adds something more. Carter's visual talent has always been to find the unusual, the enchanting, the unfamiliar in what is often right before his viewer's eyes. Here he brings us visions that he himself cannot see until they are digitized in his computer.

Additionally, Carter shifts the locus of his narrative concerns from something "out there" to the autobiographical, personal, and private. His body, his reduced vision, the disease that is compromising his viewing ability have become his focus, the place from which art is made. The names of these images, Perfect Storm or Celestial Havoc, (both 2009), introduce a new level of emotional drama and story-telling.

In the literature of the past two decades or so, a significant group of works have emerged that detail the personal, the most intimate, the most private events in their author's lives. These memoirs find a visual equivalent in art (one thinks of Kiki Smith or Nan Goldin) in which the self is revealed through what is most messy - blood, hair, bruises, scars - what might be termed a secular version of the passion of Christ.Carter challenges his viewers to accept his inward turn. He also asks them to accept that the remarkable silence, present in so many of his photographs, does not hold his interest in these works. For these are wildly baroque images filled with storms and clouds and dramatic sunbursts. And what they most resemble are the heavenly skies of the Venetian painter Tiepolo.