The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-objective and reductive artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

John Carter  |  Sight Lines  |  Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

30 March to 9 June 2019

A review by Alex James

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Installation shot, courtesy Jerwood Gallery

In this, the final exhibition by the Jerwood project at its satellite gallery in Hastings, John Carter’s work over the last 50 years is celebrated with a solo survey. The selected overview is predominantly large in scale, sensitively balanced against a representative collection of smaller pieces, prints and preparatory documentation. The curation is ambitious and seeks to present the dignity, variety and quiet presence of the artist’s output. Our attention is drawn to the artist’s skill in articulating the transition from two-dimensional drawing to three-dimensional construction.

Square, acrylic on board, 1970. Courtesy Jerwood Gallery

The works in the exhibition are presented chronologically. Square, acrylic on board, 1970, is one of the earliest pieces on display and relies on a structural configuration of gradated squares and diagonal detail, with a centre void punctuating it diagonally across its breadth. This brooding, monumental wall piece gives forth the illusion that it is somehow part of the fabric of the gallery building itself, partly because of its seemingly innate architectural volume. This quality is also characteristic of many of Carter’s other sculptural works such as Intersecting Elements (1991), and Overlaid Elements: Double Square (1988), which are in a different room. Many of these monumental / monolithic works are in fact constructed of plywood and are given the appearance of sheer mass by the application to each surface of various pigments which contain marble dust, bronzing powder and similar constituents.

Archway, mixed media, 1968. Courtesy Jerwood Gallery

In close proximity to Square stands the next structural work; similarly sized but more open:  Archway (mixed media,1968), the formality of which is belied by the interesting use of found industrial components. Steel cables and a tension rig are combined with faux-concrete piers at the base of the upright supports. This work has a more constructed or ‘assembled’ feel and suggests an inquiry into the qualities of structural tension and compositional counter-balance. The linear structural approach used in Archway is also employed in the nearby work Cross, acrylic with bronze powder on cotton duck, 1971, which as its name suggests is an X-shaped suspended structure, monumental in size and again abutted to the gallery wall. A painted composition of varied tones with a horizontal central intersection describes the two main internal ‘components’ which are crossing in opposition to, or overlying, each other. The work has a dramatic scale compounded by its materiality, which is to say that the surface has the appearance of patinated steel with the concomitant industrial processes that one associates with such material. This treatment is repeated in the nearby work Square (acrylic on board, 1970).

Black ring, 1972-74. Courtesy Jerwood Gallery

Two Circles, 1974, and Black Ring, 1972-74, offer a complete contrast, representing a later development in Carter’s interest in non-rectilinear three-dimensional form and acknowledging not only the spatial simplicity and visual ambiguity of the suspended discs in relation to one another, but perhaps incidentally demonstrating a possible empathy with the work of other international minimalist / op artist contemporaries of the period such as Sol Le Wit, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Robert Mangold. If there were such identification, this may be because Carter found the atmosphere in the UK unconducive around this time and preferred to engage in a more dynamic and positive international dialogue.

In his early career, Carter’s initial exposure to UK artists such as Victor Passmore, Mary Martin and Anthony Hill had all awakened his interest in geometry and related matters. But he may have become aware that this genre in Britain was rapidly being eclipsed by the next generation of US artists of the ’60s, leaving Constructionism and its cohorts to somewhat dissipate and fall away from the mainstream. This awareness of international developments led him to apply for (and win) the Stuyvesant Foundation Scholarship in 1966 which eventually set him on a course of investigation, the results of which we see now. This interest in the international/European scene was to develop further throughout the ’80s.

Big pink, oil on plywood, 1978. Courtesy Jerwood Gallery

Big Pink, oil on plywood, 1978, and Squares in Blue, oil on plywood, 1978, offer a return to Carter’s engagement with line and angle. Both pieces describe the square or right angle in rotation, with a play on positive and negative space, and with further permutations characteristic of many of the other works in the show. This is found, for example, in Angled Slot, oil on mdf, 2014, and in Pierced Red Shape, acrylic with marble powder on plywood, 2015, both from the 1985 maquette in which the form is reduced even further, and where the line, literally denoted in Angled Slot, becomes dominant and more descriptive as the negative or void in Pierced Red Shape.

Pierced red shape, acrylic with marble powder on plywood, 2014. Courtesy Jerwood Gallery

Over the last 50 years, many generations of international artists will have been influenced directly or otherwise by this important 20th century artist. It is apposite that this exhibition should be mounted now, given that the tide in the UK seems to be turning back in favour of this genre, driven by a younger generation. A further exhibition of Carter’s works on paper is currently on at the Redfern Gallery in London, to coincide with the release of a publication about his work by the Royal Academy.

On Paper: Surface and Structure” Redfern Gallery, 5th June-6th July 2019