BY Jan Tumlir in Reviews | 05 MAY 98
Featured in
Issue 40

Carter Potter

BY Jan Tumlir in Reviews | 05 MAY 98

To bring art up to speed with commercial culture, Marcel Duchamp saw fit, in 1915, to dump painting for the found object. It was, for him, an almost inevitable either/or decision, and one that Carter Potter could spend his career reversing, having sensed a much greater opportunity for innovation in the merger of these estranged parties. Painting, which already seemed chronically passé back then, is all the more so today, and especially in Los Angeles where its subtle pleasures are continually upstaged by the spectacular glare and blare of the entertainment industries. But Potter has found in this untimely medium a welcome home, a quiet work-space from which to survey the hysterical permutations of the mass-media while remaining in touch with a particular tradition and history. From the moment he checked into UCLA in his paint-caked sneakers, to his present activity as a manipulator of film-stocks, an interest in painting has granted his art the luxury of an unhurried, methodical growth.

Periodically, Potter has stepped outside in search of new materials, such as thrift-store paintings, abandoned sofas, junked light fixtures and ultimately the film-strips for which he has become known. These things, all rejected by their former owners, echo the forlorn status of painting itself, and to emphasise the connection he would slather them with a sickly dripping coat of pigment. At first, while working as a production assistant in Hollywood, he literally salvaged his film from the cutting-room floor, carrying it home in great tangled clumps. But once he'd glimpsed its inherent potential, he stopped painting over it and became much more fastidious in his selection process, beginning to choose bits and pieces for their specific properties of colour, density and surface texture, as well as their ability to fit into a larger compositional scheme.

The most recent paintings on view at Angles gallery in Santa Monica consist mainly of 70mm IMAX film, which the artist now buys in whole reels from a distributor. From these he employs only the beginning and end portions ­ the so-called 'foot' and 'head' of leader, which are distinct from the movie itself but serve to bracket it almost in the manner of bookends. Most of this stuff is a milky, semi-translucent white, and stretched across standard wood stretcher-bars in tight horizontal bands, it makes up the bulk of each work. But this pleasant monotony is disrupted at regular intervals by strips of saturated colour, remnants of various film-testing procedures and bursts of typographic noise ­ from those familiar countdown sequences, to title headings and trademark emblems, to all manner of quasi-cryptic notation on matters of film processing and projection. The longer one looks, the more these areas of visual concentration appear to seep into the rest, infusing each work with a subtly distinct ambience and aesthetic logic.

By removing the cinematic product from view, Potter draws our attention to the 'fact' of its production ­ a distinctly Structuralist approach that recalls the various experiments of Michael Snow, Tony Conrad and, in particular, Morgan Fisher, whose own tribute to the leader provides a direct precedent to this show. However incongruous this marriage of filmic and painterly concerns might at first appear, it is its sheer practicability that comes through in the end: what better way to 'expose the apparatus', the material basis of film than by recourse to this most materialistic medium of all? Painting regains a genuine purpose here as an older, archaic language of substance and surface through which the increasingly ethereal products of the new media might, in Walter Benjamin's terms, be made 'graspable'. Benjamin expressed a cautious enthusiasm for film, weighing its social benefits against a seemingly unlimited capacity for alienation, a totalising 'shock' which he called upon the artist in the age of mechanical reproduction somehow to 'humanise'. And this is precisely what Potter sets out to accomplish in this show.

Those who have visited the artist's studio and witnessed the mound of discarded film that stretches from wall to wall and reaches almost up to the ceiling, may be better able to appreciate the full extent of the editorial violence this task has entailed. Wasteful extravagance serves, in this case, to honour the remainder, while at the same time vindicating the conviction that has compelled this artist's work from the start: that beauty resides in the most neglected objects, in their intrinsic qualities as well as in the commitment that accompanies the will to make them visible. It is paradoxical that this simple message should find such an appropriate vehicle in the bombastic mega-spectacle of IMAX. Yet even here, at the highest echelons of film production, Potter continues to focus on the humblest, most overlooked details: the patient work of the technicians, who, like the painters locked away in their garrets, still gaze at the ever-accelerating world outside one frame at a time.

Jan Tumlir is an author and teacher based in Los Angeles, USA. His latest book Conversations (2020), published by Inventory Press, is a series of dialogues with the artist Jorge Pardo.