On the Paintings of Bert Carpenter

by Hilton Kramer



Finally, we come to the unexpected frisson of Bert's most recent pictures, the Model's Chair (pp. 97-99) and Hooded (pp. 99-113) figure series, which have dominated his work since the mid-1970's. These are pictures that are likely to be shocking to the many people who know Bert's work mainly on the basis of his flower paintings. While the latter are brilliant in color, lyric in feeling, and dazzling in their luminosity, these later pictures eschew such appeals for an unremitting somberness. The high chromatic brilliancy of the oil medium is abandoned in favor of a dour amalgam of charcoal, pastel and acrylic varnish applied to large panels of gesso-primed rag board. As a technical feat, these later pictures -- especially the Hooded figure series -- must be counted among Bert's most original conceptions. It is as statements of feeling, however, that they are likely to be found deeply disturbing.

Beginning with the Model's Chair series, we are introduced to the premonitory theme of absence. The model's chair has been vacated in these pictures, and the only remaining trace of a human presence is an implied dialogue between the artist and the memory of the departed model. There is an oddly discomforting intimacy in these pictures, as if they were meant to serve as a kind of memento mari. We are left with the distinct and somewhat unnerving feeling that the model will not be returning to the model's chair -- or, indeed, to the painter's art.

The Hooded figure pictures, begun in 1985 and continuing into the 1990's, are even more compelling in their evocation of absence. For in these pictures not only has the model not returned, but the chair is gone and so is the intimacy of the studio space. In their place a stark, featureless white space is occupied by a single mordant effigy -- a studio mannequin completely shrouded from the head down in a slick black hooded garment that cuts a sharp, sculpture-like silhouette in the white void. This faceless mannequin is clearly female but otherwise without identity, and the way its head and torso are bound and otherwise confined by what looks like a black vinyl cloak of some sort suggests an apparition from some nether world of the mind. At the same time, the black garment has an almost chic, late twentieth-century look, resembling perhaps something remembered from a fashionable shop window, yet too far gone in the direction of the grotesque to serve such a sociable purpose. About the only thing these figures have in common with Bert's earlier pictures is the way their images are cropped, and then further confined and immobilized within the picture plane.

These troubling pictures are a triumph of the graphic imagination, and a technical accomplishment of a high order. About their meaning, however, one can only speculate. As a rule, I have an aversion to the practice of allegorizing pictorial images when not explicitly invited to do so by the work itself. Yet in the presence of the Hooded figure pictures, the mind does feel compelled to explore their ominous implications even as the eye savors their bizarre and often pleasurable invention.

Both in my initial encounter with these pictures in Bert's studio and upon further reflection, I have found myself thinking about the Hooded figure pictures as a series of meditations on mortality. What was begun as an evocation of absence in the Model's Chair pictures seems to have evolved in the Hooded figures into what might be called rehearsals of extinction. These are thus pictures that belong to what the Germans call altekunst -- which loses some of its dignity and grandeur when literally translated as "old age art" -- and is meant to signify a summing up and quintessentialization of experience both in art and in life. This, it seems to me, is what Bert Carpenter has achieved in these very haunting pictures, and as such they constitute a remarkable achievement in themselves.


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