Digital Luminance: The Paintings of Jason E. Carter

Its hard to immediately see, but there is something peculiar about Jason Carter’s paintings. These quiet domestic settings and isolated objects follow our knowledge of perspective and logic. While primarily realistic, one can see the details of applied paint, hesitantly abstracting the rooms and objects that could be found in most homes across the country. The darkness consuming the objects isn’t as foreboding as it is meditative. Maybe its in peaceful contemplation that we get to the heart of these works, as our eyes register the blue and green hues glowing from these stoic scenes, at the same time coming out of the objects like blood trickling from a wound and over them as a security blanket might envelope. It is here that we realize the light: Carter is not merely painting private interiors, he is integrating digital light — like that from a computer, cell phone or flat screen TV — to create a narrative of contemporary life within a domestic setting carried over from the 20th century. The friction of these conditions, which most of us live in with without batting an eyelash in its uniqueness, is a bit like a child who stops their play after suddenly realizing a camera is capturing that moment. It is at this moment that their self awareness in the gaze of the camera kills the idyllic scene thats intended to be captured. Both sides of the camera are suddenly viewing and being viewed simultaneously. Whats left in the photo is the now invisible camera, and here, that is the digital light influencing the setting and integrating itself in it, isolating yet highlighting. The rooms Carter paints are specific to him, yet they become surrogates of our own living spaces in the digital age.

Thomas Friel: How did this body of work start?

Jason Carter: I was thinking a lot about the dichotomy of being disconnected from ones environment, yet connected to the global environment via a cell phone. I started using cell phones, specifically iPhones, as the only light source in the work. At this stage, the phones – the light sources – were still in the paintings. It was much more fulfilling imagery when it moved into the environment, into domestic spaces. At the same time, I remembered having seen a show back in 2001 called Light! The Industrial Age [Carnegie Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum, curated by Louise Lippincott and Andreas Blühm] . It dealt with how electricity changed painting and how the temperature change in light affected these painter’s work. So with the industrial age brought a huge shift in culture, took business and everyday life into the night. The same can be said for the digital age and its impact on the everyday. Understanding how dramatically important for civilization the former was, you have to acknowledge the same for our present time. That show opened me up to thinking, “what is modern light?” What keeps coming back to me is how similar digital light is to a candle’s flicker. If you look at the effect a screen has on a space, its not that much different in how a candle’s light behaves. When I started thinking about light and focusing on light as subject matter in my work, it allowed me to bridge the gap between the past and the present.

I’ve traveled a lot in the past year and have gone to many museums around the country, which has helped develop my thinking. Particularly, I’ve responded to museums with strong collections of regionalism, as I think right now there is a real interest in local culture. Environment is really important, and the creative energy here is very unique. There is a pressure to move to New York or LA, but I think something is brewing here. I’ve developed a strong love for Detroit, and I want to stay and be a part of it. Additionally, museums with different curatorial methods have held my attention, like the Columbus Museum of Art. Instead of dividing art by period, they make relationships with their work, so there might be an 19th century painting next to a contemporary piece, which is next to a piece of folk art. My work is rooted in having a dialog with painting’s history, so here is that conversation posed as a method of viewing. I would like to see more museums do this.

TF: Regarding the curatorial practices, I agree. Moving away from linear history and more towards relational history seems to be a more contemporary way of looking at things. Albert Barnes was doing it with his collection, but that still stays within an encapsulated time frame. Talking about Detroit and its influence, is it necessary that the paintings are of Detroit? Are they even specifically of Detroit?

JEC: No, not specifically. I think some of it enters unconsciously, but it has a lot to do with knowing this place and understanding it’s unique history. There is nostalgia because we’ve lost so much, and my work definitely reflects upon the past. Most of my photo references come from the metro Detroit area, but doesn’t have to be read solely as Detroit. The city’s boom was in the early to mid-20th century, so I’m using it as more of an American Landscape than specifically the city of Detroit. I’ve been looking a lot at the American Luminists of the 19th century. They used light and landscape to promote idealism and the culture of the times. I’m referencing them, but using digital light to speak about our current landscape.

TF: Many of the paintings show interiors, particularly domestic. The light that you are adding, the digital light, brings a new way of thinking into these mid- 20th century settings. If you think about it, the architecture being built now is still predominately Modernist, especially when it comes to housing. There’s not much change in domestic architecture.

JEC: No, not really. What has changed the most is our interactions within these spaces. The digital age to me is very singular, even though it connects all that are plugged into it. The whole physical involvement with the digital is one on one, you and the screen. We deal with the digital world mostly in closed spaces, in a separate world wrapped in tunnel vision with the screen. What opened my eyes was when I finally separated from the screen and watched that light fill the room. Noticing this was shocking and I realized how disconnected we get from our environment. As much as we are now connected to the greater world, it also restricts you to this device and your attention taken away from your actual surroundings.

TF: Do you artificially light the shots you take in preparation for your canvases?

JEC: Some of the spaces are already set up where a screen is present, but I will also set up a laptop or iPhone to throw light on the subjects, so I can see the light’s affect. This same light gets represented a second time from the laptop screen when Iʼm referring to it for a painting. Iʼm interested in keeping the outcome realistic, or maybe more naturalistic. There are things you donʼt see in a digital image, so I have to create it to give it depth. So much of our lives are consumed by the digital, which is basically flat. Iʼm looking to show that constant friction between the real world and the digital world. I also find that a lot of current representational paintings tend to feel pretty flat in comparison to, say, 19th century painting. Not all, of course, but there is a real sense of physicality that seems to be lost.
TF: Most people have access to the larger world only through the internet, causing the world to be seen more as a series of images and less as physical spaces and objects. This causes a disconnect with the world, further separating us from the very things the internet provides. Everything becomes a blur of constantly changing images on the screen. Is a revitalization of lost practices in painting part of the overarching concern for the loss of materiality?

JEC: Iʼm not getting totally lost in these traditions, but I am trying to understand older practices. When I was doing painting conservation for a Private Conservator, I was surrounded by mostly 18th and 19th century American artwork and I was constantly looking at the structure of those paintings. That experience was a large part of my art education. Being able to hold a John Singer Sargent in your hands and feel the physicality of it, looking at it for long periods of time as youʼre working on it results in a totally different way of viewing the work. You spend days and days working on them and you begin to see little subtleties that expose themselves.

TF: I remember talking with you a month or so ago about some paintings you were doing that was just the light on the canvas. Is this a concurrent body of work?

JEC: Yeah. I started taking some of the images I’ve been shooting, but only painting the light itself with white paint. Whatʼs actually setting it off then, is the light hitting the canvas. To me, this becomes a discussion purely on light. This body of work helps feed the conceptual side, as I have a love for both representational and conceptual art. What becomes interesting to me is to watch the paintings at different times of the day. They change completely due to the light source as well as what color of light shines on them. (Pointing to a small canvas on the far wall by the window) Right now, the lights are warm, and so it has a yellowish hue. A laptop or daylight changes it completely, even the angle of the light on the canvas. It heightens the sense of itself, that is, what Iʼm trying to represent within the painting. Its the same dialog as the other series, but offers something else to the conversation.
TF: The scale of these are very intimate, which allow them to add something to the dialog of the White Painting, yet are still in context with your other work. Do you end up bouncing between the two bodies of work?

JEC: Sometimes, yeah. Its the complete reversal of how I paint. In the white paintings I have to be very precise and there is much less room for error. Besides craft, Iʼm trying to talk about where we are going as a species because of digital technology. (He gestures to a small painting of a textile, the only one that exists on an easel in the studio.) The painting of the coverlet is about the handmade object. What do we do with these processes? We are far removed from the days where we would use a loom. But if you look at the structure of something made on a loom, its very similar to digital structure — its still an X, Y axis.

TF: And the pattern of different squares here, as with many quilt patterns, can easily be read as pixels.

JEC: We need to ask ourselves: after a method or an object loses its function, does it get lost, does it lose its meaning moving into a digital future? Things now are so mass produced, or just data in a computer, that there is a loss of the handmade.

TF: By having that artificial light source on there, there is a mediation between the viewer and the subject. Maybe its similar to early photography, or portraiture, where the subject has to sit still for so long that they end up looking stiff. Well, that captures the person, but not their personality. So maybe the same can happen in these paintings where the digital light is forcing itself upon these objects, altering how we perceive them. There is a mediation between the viewer and these otherwise comfortable domestic spaces.

JEC: Before, the TV was placed on or close to the floor in a domestic setting. They were below the mantle. Now they are above the mantle or on the wall. How we feel about these screens has totally changed. Walking around at night and noticing the light coming from apartment buildings, you can see what the room is used for based on the light emitted. Sometimes, if people in the building are watching the same channels, the light will flicker at the same time. Observing this has exposed me to my own time.

Jason Carter is a 2011 MFA Grant Recipient of the Joan Mitchell Art Foundation. An exhibit of all 15 MFA Grant Recipients is currently on view at CUE Art Foundation in New York until July 28. Currently, he is part of a group exhibition titled “Night Show”at Detroit Artists Market in Detroit, MI, which runs until July 17. He is represented by Lemberg Gallery in Ferndale, MI.

Thomas Friel