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Rob and Nick Carter Profile Work Biography  



Rob and Nick Carter

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On my first visit to the Carters’ studio I all but fell over a tangle of what at first appeared to be …? Actually, I’d no idea what it was. I only registered it in the act of disentangling myself from it: a mass of black wires held together with duct tape in the tradition of motorcycle couriers and space junk.

“Ooh careful”, said Nicky.

She heaped it all back into an old metal biscuit box like so much black spaghetti, moving it aside with her foot, leaving me unsure as to whether she meant careful of yourself or careful of my stuff. I think it was probably the latter as what I’d tripped over turned out to be one of the precision-built instruments which she and her husband Robert Carter use to make their work.

Rob and Nicky call the unique process they’ve developed ‘painting with light’, and further qualify this as ‘photography without a camera, painting without brushes’. What I’d tripped over was, in effect, their brushes.

Prior to my studio visit, speaking with Nicky Carter on the phone, there was a certain under-lining of these words ‘painting with light.’ You can appreciate why she might want to stress them when you begin to understand how much the highly manufactured appearance of the work belies the very hands-on nature of its creation. Approached from a different aesthetic perspective, these could just as easily be gestural paintings; they’re certainly very experimental, and the Carters have an almost Greenbergian love of the intrinsic qualities of ‘the light’, just as an artist may have the joy of the paint.

I liked the sound of painting with light - like sketching on air, or somehow organising the elements in the spirit of pioneer photography - capturing the silhouettes of objects projected by the sun’s rays onto sensitive grounds. Of course, it turns out to be much more prosaic: painting with light is a more or less accurate description of how it’s done. On my way to the studio, I was unsure what this meant. Not because I was stuck on the fact that painting, rigidly speaking, can only be the act of applying paint - you can paint with a hosepipe on a dry stretch of road if you want. It was more that I simply couldn’t understand how and where the painting came in to it.

Quite rightly exercising his prerogative to retain at least some of the myth of creation, Rob Carter took me through the process without giving me the blueprint. In fact, technically speaking, it is indeed photographic, in that an image is produced by means of chemical action of light from optical fibres on sensitive film. Yet photography has nothing to do with it. These bunches of coloured light are mopped like great squeegees across the surface of the sensitised ground, dragging Richteresque trails something like those left by a side-winding snake in sand. Interestingly, this same fibre–optic light is also, in some cases projected onto the finished piece with a kinetic effect – expanding circular ripples of coloured light – so that the works appear to change as the projected colours scroll through the spectrum.

Up until my visit I’d seen the work only in catalogues, and in reproduction it loses well over 50%, not necessarily of vibrancy, though this suffers too, but more of the experience of something moving in harmony with specific light changes to create the overall effect. These are really stills you’re looking at, and could probably only be approximated with a flick book style approach. At first certain pieces seem to have obvious visual associations with Pop and Op art. The Carters’ early target paintings, for instance, would seem to follow a Pop tradition – while being unconcerned, of course, with Pop art’s examination of the imagery and ethos of mass culture. Being purely abstract and optical, these works are closer perhaps to Op art, but while they may draw you into wondering how the artists have achieved certain visual effects, neither Rob nor Nicky Carter - who operate with an equal strength of vision – have set out to trick the eye.

The work, in fact, is totally unambiguous. It is purely formal, and self-referential in its intentions. Colour is the fundamental ingredient whose vibrancy is maximised by form. Though the work has – I’m obliged to say it - a hypnotic quality, and so stays with you beyond the first impact. I remember Damien Hirst talking somewhere about the early dot paintings: something about the myriad possible colour combinations and why a blue works next to a brown, and how, when they don’t work, that can be interesting too. That’s applicable to these pieces, except that the changing colour combinations present the question more fleetingly.
As I've mentioned hypnosis already I’ll mention it again in relation to the Orbs which are in some respects the simplest. Certainly they can be said to possess hypnotic capabilities. When I entered the studio they were propped unassumingly against the far wall.

Immediately however they caught my attention and I found myself involuntarily walking towards them, frowning, as I couldn't at first understand what I was seeing. Ok, I said to myself what are these..? They were in fact a series of three-dimensional floating orbs, rendered flat only by the act of glancing away and then glancing back, and I suppose a belief in physics. However as soon as the eye settles back on them you are drawn in once more. Perhaps the ultimate success of these pieces is not to make you search for how this affect is being put over on you but instead to take you away from formal considerations into a hazy landscape; for these pieces seemed to me to be very much to do with plane and landscape in a way in which the other work is not. Though the orb dominates the frame, the very simplicity of the form suggests a varied vastness beyond it, in front of it, in fact all around it. The character of this vastness is somewhat dictated by the individual colour of the orb but largely left up to your own input. The edges here are softened in a beautifully subtle echo of Rothko and as such create peripheral spectrums of complimentary hues. In Orb II, perhaps because of the roundness and the orange colour, I was reminded of a quote by David Hockney: that no one looks at a painting longer than it takes to peel one - an orange that is, but that was certainly not the case with this piece.

Perhaps the whole notion of painting with light is bound to create metaphysical associations, as this was also my reaction to the Light Painting series. Grounds of pure colour which have in addition to the process of painting with light been treated with a rhythmical series of paint marks reminiscent of action painting, specifically those of Pollock, except that here, the marks, although adhering to a pattern, have a randomness which is ultimately calming as opposed to unsettling or frenetic and as such has a potential for reverie and penetration.

Although the Carters have used paint before, in terms of integrating the
ultimately uncontrollable application of paint, these mixed media works are perhaps the most complex to achieve and as such reflect the unknown and experimental nature of the work.

What gives the work its freshness and something unexpected comes perhaps from its experimental nature. The making happens entirely in darkness, where the image is gradually built up with successive increments of light. Working in complete darkness, you are bound to be surprised, of course. The Carters have little indication in the darkroom as to what the results will be when the work is developed. Some of the effects achieved by chance have now been adopted as practice – in much the same way as Bacon became specific about his accidental process, refining and honing it over the years.

Rob and Nick Carter are still, they say, in the early stages. One of the enduring impressions you take away with you is similar in kind to having been blinded by high wattage lamps. Afterwards when you close eyes, incandescent lights float about on your retina, creating not so much an exact facsimile of the work but an impression of its power. The evolution that is clearly discernible through the Carters’ work so far culminates in one of their most recent pieces Light Drawing, Blue. In this painting the departure from more generic forms of targets and stripes has given the work a more personal and singular feeling, which is echoed by the subtle though strong tonal values that also create a third dimension reminiscent of the folds in a Vegas show curtain. This would be the opening curtain because, beyond its immediate fascination, this work – which is barely contained by its own contours – suggests the massive potential of just how much further it can go: the light years ahead, you might say.

Harland Miller 2002


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