Stephen Carter: Reading Between the Lines
READING BETWEEN THE LINES
A retrospective of paintings by Stephen Carter (b.1949)
focusing on the period of 1995-2011, curated by Sebastian Craig.
In 1995 Stephen Carter made his first newspaper painting; a one-to-one scale representation, using black rectangles and white gutters, of the structured layout of information on the page of a daily newspaper. This was to be the first work in a series which would occupy Carter’s practice for the next 5 years. The early paintings present different incarnations of the systematic graphic structure favoured by newspaper editors; they stop short of revealing the conceptual play between types of information and limit themselves to the purely spatial typologies of print upon pages. By the end of the 1990s Carter had introduced the 5-colour palette by which his painting at the turn of the millennium may be characterized. Following the same structural system as the earlier works, a colour code was now implemented: white to represent areas of editorial text, blue for editorial images, red for areas of advertising and yellow for what Carter calls narcissism (a self-referential editorial-cum-advertising text which it was not possible to classify definitively as either advertising or editorial), gutters between information fields were painted grey. The choice of these colours hints at one of Carter’s ongoing conceits - a feud between high and low culture. Displaying the colour palate of De Stijl, the paintings seem to advocate the austerity of a purely aesthetic endeavor, however each work represents a snap-shot of a cheap and disposable product of mass-culture which might be said to be a snap-shot, albeit fragmentary, of the culture itself at a given moment.
Culture is not a static or even sedentary prey, it perpetually alters its shape and at best can be grasped in the form of trends or patterns which can be predicted, created and then documented, all of which activities take place through the communications industries including the media and the arts. At what point the boundaries of the one activity bleed into another is a matter of ethical concern with regards to who is being served and who is being manipulated. Design in the mass media is a tool put to many uses although its fundamental function is to deliver, in a particular way, a particular segment of content. Whilst designers may also attempt to influence content, in the mass-media it is more common for content to arrive pre-formed upon the designer’s desk for him or her to arrange. There is a clear duality, that of the signifier and the signified, between the concept and the form of its dispersal. Begun immediately after the turn of the millennium, Carter’s series, known as the word paintings, revels in exactly this duality. In short the process of production is as follows: Carter enters a newsagent’s shop or stands before a newsstand and either takes note of every word he can see printed upon the front covers of the publications there displayed, or photographs the newsstand to carry out the process at leisure in his studio. These words are then compiled and laid out upon the surface of a single painting. These paintings could again be described as a record of a moment in cultural history as displayed by the headlining words, designed to be most visible, appearing across a fairly broad sample of mass-culture’s products available on a given day. However, they also cut through the sample and, in the manner of Burroughs’ cut-up novels, reveal a subtle system at work in the arranging together of separate items of information in the field of vision (the suspicion that Carter had in fact discovered a system and was putting it to dastardly effect caused the painter to be detained on suspicion of being a spy during an outing in the late nineties to a newsstand to collect his source material in the manner described above). It is clear that the arrangement of information, both within a single source and between sources, be it arbitrary or deeply controlled, is vital to the way in which we, as readers, interpret meaning from the available content. Should a newsstand shelf-stacker casually place his copies of The Times in front of his copies of The Daily Star it is probable that only tiny fragments of information from the cover behind will penetrate the mind of a disinterested viewer, and his arrangement of publications will surely be self-interested in terms of his shelf space and a product’s profitability as well as being subject to his individual process of classification and a certain level of chance.
A dichotomy which could be said to be the essence of human society is the struggle between ideology and its application. Aristotle termed this struggle praxis, referring to the varied interferences which arise during the action necessary to turn theory into practice. Pivotal ideas cannot always find their way into the main stream of daily life as they are simply not compatible with the pragmatic self-interested concerns of individual free citizens. For example - plans for a new wind power station, which would power millions of homes with clean energy for decades may be overthrown due to the media savvy protest of a handful of outraged local business owners - this type of circumstance colours every aspect of our society and its endeavors. By 2004, almost a decade after beginning the newspaper paintings, Carter, perhaps realizing the wider implications of his method, turned away from the mass media and focused both his theoretical attention and artistic practice on another grand and monumental document of mankind’s industry - the fabric of the city. The urban planner, and on a smaller scale the architect, is tasked with the role of constructing, arranging and editing the built environment and infrastructure that our civilization envisages for itself and subsequently demands, reconciling the top-down concerns of governmental strategies for funding and regulation with the practical demands of users on the ground. Carter’s architectural paintings of the last decade return to the process he began in the early nineties. Humbly reducing the elements in his field of vision to their constituent outlines and arrangements, Carter is engaged once again in a procedure of stripping back the surface noise in order to catalogue the structures beneath, so that over time when the noise is carefully replaced, we are better able to comprehend that upon which it hangs.