Todd Carpenter: In the Spaces Between
KP Projects / Merry Karnowsky Gallery
Through July 28
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Painter Todd Carpenter has a unique relationship to photography; a counterintuitive inversion in which his eye and his technique take an empathetic rather than a competitive stance toward photography’s concerns. A connoisseur of ostensibly classical motifs like clouds, forest clearings, cityscapes, and slanting sunlight, Carpenter’s take on representing the natural world is not significantly naturalistic. For an obvious start, he works almost entirely in grey scale. As each individual work unfolds, a panoply of further high-minded eccentricities make themselves known. But a consideration of his palette of black white and grey is unavoidable.
On the one hand, using grey scale in rendering landscapes harkens directly to photography, from its early golden days when the idea was to capture a degree of atmosphere and detail equal to the greatest realist painting — but the limits of film technology meant this could only be accomplished in black and white. These days with the flowering of full chromatic saturation and ubiquitous digital cameras, the look and feel of black and white photographs now feels vintage and historical, with a certain gravitas and a clearly articulated formalism. In the absence of color, the eye evaluates shape and line, shadow and plane, in a more parsing manner. That is the arena of photography in which Carpenter, the painter, operates. His chromatic de-saturation both touches on art historical modes in photographing nature, and allows for a more full expression of his very modern ideas about the nature of perception.
For Carpenter, this has to do with the idea that the human mind is wired to categorize, identify patterns, and sort information — in short, to take stock, the quicker the better. The way he paints is supportive toward this instinct, helpful even. His obvious dexterity in moving between modalities of naturalism and evocative, gestural ambiguity produces a slate of techniques in use within each single work — the better to articulate the diverse material qualities of the objects in the picture. Clouds and trees are after all, quite different in a material sense. Why not render them in ways that not only depict but embody those differences.
His embrace of even photography’s foibles — like solar flares, diffusions of fog, high-contrast spectrums, hot spots of sunlight, manipulated focal planes, the vagaries of polarization filters, negative shapes, over-processed balances, and lens refraction — disrupts the consumption of his works as singular holistic spaces. Instead, the viewer finds themselves tallying the details and the many elements in the picture, tracing the systems in which they exist; and they are rewarded for this more complete attentiveness not only by a deeper sense of place and atmosphere — but also by a closer intimacy with the painter’s choices and actions.
Indeed the relatively small scale of the work also encourages this examination in proximity. One must peer in close, then step away again, and perhaps repeat this dance several times, to attain a complete grasp on what the picture actually contains and how it does so. As the viewer moves closer, details which had sung with specificity only a moment — or a few inches — earlier, now dissolve into mysterious traces of the hand of the artist. The solving of these myriad optical riddles serves two purposes — to further intensify the attention to the elements of the painted image, but also simultaneously the elements of the painter’s style. This is not something a photograph does, this is something only a painting can do.