Manufactured objects begin their existences already possessing—and possessed by—a history. Even the latest digital wonder evokes a potential deluge of memory: early computers, radios, land lines, and wind-up phonographs are just some of the connections the latest cell phone may make. Earlier machines project memory in both directions: my first thought, on seeing Joe Carter’s “Remington Upstrike No. 7,” was of Mark Twain, a writer contemporary to the invention of the typewriter who was well known for his enthusiastic, even irresponsible attraction to new technologies. No surprise to learn from Carter’s statement that Twain was among the first to acquire an Upstrike, which must have connected fountain pens to printing presses for him. But to look at the actual machine, standing next to the painting on a pedestal, calls to mind the century past: not only the wear and tear visible on one example, but the changes in fashion and fortune of a once-invaluable tool that is now, in so far as its original purpose is concerned, obsolete. We elders make jokes when we use a term like ‘record’ or ‘LP’ in the presence of younger listeners, pretending to explain about those 12-inch black discs that contained music. It would not be a joke to explain some of the subjects Carter has painted. Even if a viewer recognized an electron tube, what are the chances she would understand its concept and operation the way she grasps her iPod?
Memory, in short, is unreliable: too much with us when we should better forget, but leaving us bereft just when we need it most. As discussed before in these pages (see Shawn Rossiter on The Emigrants, and follow the links to Anselm Kiefer), some recent artists around the world have taken memory and its misuse to task in their works. In this country, meanwhile, while our pundits loudly lament our short memories and attention spans, our culture and politics dwell increasingly in the past. Our latest movies come from old TV shows and even older comics, while we vote for the party that makes us feel most like the way we used to feel. Compare this to a painter like the German, Gerhard Richter, who paints blurry black and white images based on newspaper photos, counting on the durability of art to make sure important events aren’t forgotten like the dead fish we might wrap up in those newspapers and throw out.
I have to confess to feeling ambivalent about the power of painters like Carter to evoke memory. In the beginning, painters represented symbolic objects, like candles for souls, water for purity, and flowers for renewal, and made them look real to make us feel their presence. Today, nostalgia is big business, realism gives us illusions, and antiquated goods are often part of the way we distract ourselves from an unwelcome present and escape instead into the past. Still, who’s to say that the nostalgia a child’s toy evokes, like “Little Red Truck” or “Buddy,” can’t release a powerful understanding in the viewer, stoked by a child’s unforgettable feelings? Gaze a while at “Tangle” and realize how much effort and pride went into designing just the packages—thread spools in this case—ordinary things used to come in. Yes, something went out of our lives with the arrival of mass production, but it wasn’t the machines that committed the theft. Neither are they the primary force holding back real progress, or real understanding.
What’s not evident in the photos that accompany this review, but must be seen in person, is how Carter’s paintings actually look, and how they function visually. They are bigger, of course: some of them ten square feet or more. The brushwork is also looser than their small, photo-like images suggest. At a distance, glare and compound shadows call into question the perfectibility of perception; walk up close and the evidence of craft asks whether a brand new product can ever be mistaken for a finished, static version or final state. After all, aren’t wear and tear analogs in a way to the brushstrokes that gradually build a painting? Both are parts of history. One possible lesson of Carter’s enlargements of found objects is that warm, fuzzy feelings masquerading as nostalgic memories do not stop time or authorize us to stop looking. Carter likes to paint jars in which odd items are displayed.|5| It could be about hermetic preservation, a close relative of asphyxiation. Or it could be the way filling a space makes us see that space in a way we don’t when it’s empty: just space. Whether the illusion is half-full or half-empty is for the viewer to decide.
The paintings of Joe Carter are available at Salt Lake’s Phillips Gallery through April 13.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.