Bert Carpenter: Persistence of Realism

by Sam Yates



Carpenter was eager to return to the east coast and his innovative academic work at Hawaii led to an interview for the position of Art Department Head at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He accepted this position in 1963 and moved with his family into a home on West Market Street near the campus. There, he converted an older garage into a spacious studio and soon began a new series of large paintings. As in previous creative periods of transition, Carpenter turned to his immediate environment for inspiration. While teaching Classical Greek Art History, he began the Niobid series (pp. 51-52), which retained the large scale of his previous paintings. Other works, such as Venus of Milo (p. 53), were derived directly from projected slide images with their distorted light and color. The artist's interest in the classics also led to Caryatids and other drawings which contained motifs similar to those that appear in his 1949 sketchbook. By 1971, this series had evolved into complex figure groupings that suggest mythological figures in a contemporary context, such as The Department Store (p. 127). These "scenes," as referred to by the artist, were his effort to find "...a way of reversing the decline of figurative imagery as serious meaning and belief seeped away from religious imagery, mythology and history. The images no longer had enough bite to them to hold ideas about death, love, the whole thing. There have to be commonly held relationships to the meaning of the images before the artist can really get to the subject at all. I keep thinking that by the means of the erotic attachment to the subject, I have allowed myself an entrance into these important subjects again, that I can deal with situations where we can become interested in ways that people relate, not on the level of narrative, but on levels of conjunction, confrontation."

While continuing with these small drawings, Carpenter began a new series of large scale paintings, whose seemingly neutral subject matter was flowers. Big White (p. 55), was a painting of a single rose. Freshly cut from Carpenter's own garden, the rose was isolated against an empty background, a principle that the artist would later use in his large charcoal figures. Big Yellow (p. 56), which followed, had the distinction of being the last painting of a flower based on a preparatory drawing. It was also the only painting for which he attempted to use a photograph, but he found that "...the Photograph did not contain enough information."

Drawing upon his experience with fresco and surrealism, the artist arrived at what he called an "automatic" method of composing these subjects. Now it was a wilting flower instead of drying plaster that mandated his "organic" method of composition. Yellow, Pink, and Pinker (reproduced to the right), "...began with a blank piece of canvas tacked to the wall, its final dimensions not yet chosen. Beginning with the lift edge of the larger pink rose, I painted all day so that by the time I reached the right edge of the flower the petals had drooped. The next day, I added another rose first working out the place where the two roses meet each other and working rightward out from that. The third day, I added a long stemmed pink rose above and then the background establishing the upper edge of the canvas. Lastly I decided where the lower and side edges should be for the painting. The three roses never existed together as a group before the painting was painted, they 'grew' into the painting." This series of paintings was exhibited in New York in 1970 and established Carpenter as a major contemporary realist.

Carpenter extended his use of organic objects from his immediate environment to paintings of eggs and tomatoes. It was important to the artist that each of these subjects could be held in one's hand, each having its own specific chromatic and tactile character. "The flower and tomato are soft and flesh-like, whereas the egg is hard until cracked when the orange and yellow yoke oozes out -- its color is like an exalted sunset." Similar to the flower paintings, in which the artist works vigorously before the flower wilts, a painting of a broken egg must compositionally begin with the yolk whose color will change radically in the first half-hour.

The 1976 painting, Still Life with Yellow Squash (p. 68), was the first one that was composed of various still life elements arranged on a table. The monumental quality of this and subsequent paintings was achieved through the scale and stage-like arrangement of the objects, and by an implied frontal light source. This kind of light was also preferred by Charlot, who stated, "The mural specification for a clear outline and sustained local color seems to be a frontal, flat, diffused light -- a light which best holds the objects within the bounds of its own outline, plays low the modeling, increases the hegemony of local color... " [2]

The evolution of these still life paintings resulted in the elaborate combinations of cut flowers and objects found in the artist's studio. The addition of personal items to those associated with the painter's craft made these new works more allegorical than their predecessors. Of Still Life with Self Portrait, reproduced on the cover of this catalogue, the artist states, "The painting began as one can with a few yellow flowers. It started evolving as I opened the lid which showed the inside of the can and this suggested turning the pink gloves inside out to show their white lining. Gloves, can, flowers set up a color combination that step by step seeped out as more elements suggested themselves and were added, moving out in all directions. The painting formulated itself, and established its own structure which I recognized, as it seemed to be dealing with inversions and reflections of fractured continuities. This eventually led to the use of the double mirror which inverts the image and becomes the title of the painting."

The primary subject of a 1983 painting, Manikin in the Studio (p. 81), was a manikin wearing a designer jacket that had an intriguing reflective surface. The artist's long-time interest in the expressive possibilities of tactile surfaces and, in particular, the reflective quality of this jacket, led him to experiment with mediums other than oil on canvas. Recalling his drawings of The Model's Chair (pp. 97 - 99), Carpenter developed an innovative technique for replicating the tactile quality of this fabric. Through the multi-layering of charcoal with alternate coatings of acrylic medium in the subsequent Hooded series (pp. 99 - 113), he achieved images that had, not only, a luminous and rich black surface, but also, a compelling and mysterious sense of presence.


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