Clarence Holbrook Carter
American Surrealist
January 23 - February 27, 2021
Los Angeles

Various Small Fires is pleased to present the first West Coast solo exhibition in five decades of works by the late American artist Clarence Holbrook Carter (b. Portsmouth, OH, 1904-2000) as part of an ongoing collaboration with WOLFS gallery (Cleveland, OH).

An artist whose oeuvre is as hard to define as the times in which he worked, the solitary and under-recognized Carter has been most notably compared to Surrealist painters such as Kay Sage, Max Ernst, and Giorgio de Chirico, yet his perpetual fascination with death, nature, and the metaphysical profoundly shaped his transcendental art. More concerned with the mysteries of the unseen, Carter expertly rendered vast, psychological landscapes and inquisitive musings on mortality, the human-animal relationship, and phenomenology across eight decades. From the roaring twenties to just before the dawn of the new millennium, VSF has selected three unique recurring themes for Carter’s first solo exhibition in the Los Angeles gallery: the Over and Above, Transection, and Eschatos series.

Born in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1904, Carter spent the first years of his career capturing scenes of the American Midwest during the Great Depression. Yet moments from this period also foreshadow the otherworldly and spiritual curiosity that would expand his subject matter in the latter half of his life. In The Lady of Shalott (1927), a woman lies across a dark, watery dreamscape, her head encircled by an ethereal orb of light while morning glories unfurl beneath her. This seminal painting, a portrait of death (as symbolized by the flower, which blooms and dies in a single day), is the first of Carter’s representations of transience as well as the floating, glowing orbs that would characterize the artist’s later works.

One of Carter’s earliest deviations from the American Scene was the Over and Above series, rendered in the 1960s and early 1970s. The allegorical creatures, alternating between menacing and friendly, capture Carter’s fascination with the unknown. A spider, lion, red-eyed rat, snake, and baboon are depicted looming over an abstracted wall that separates animal and viewer. The eerie, flat-toned barrier suggests the artist’s interest in minimalist abstraction and highlights Carter’s prescient ruminations on the irreconcilable distance between humans and nature. In the words of the artist, the lives of animals would always remain a “pervading mystery.”

The most significant and oft-used symbol of Carter’s career was the egg or head-like shape the artist termed “the ovoid.” To Carter, the form symbolized life and fertility, but also death and rebirth — central themes that occupied the artist throughout his career. In Carter’s Transection series from the 1970s to the 1990s, the ovoids — sometimes stark and geometric while at other times, gracefully contoured with tactile corporeality — levitate above exposed tombs or mystifying architectural spaces reminiscent of the works of proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. “Transection” is a theological term meaning “to cross,” and in these images the orbs, whose shape connotes the outline of a human face, might suggest the transference from the earthly to the metaphysical realm.

Carter’s subsequent Eschatos series depicts the ovoids floating in spacious, foggy landscapes often portrayed with craggy peaks and cavernous valleys — transcendent visions that are both realistically rendered yet imaginatively escapist. Clearly non-human, or perhaps no longer human, the ovoid figures appear bound to mysterious landscapes that unfold ad infinitum in all directions. In Greek, eschatos means “a study of what is last.” While the term can easily be linked to Carter’s own artistic trajectory (Eschatos was his final stylistic evolution), it begs the present-day question: What is last? The unanswered questions around Carter’s broader fascination surrounding death, transcendence and the infinite are only deepened by existing concerns around humanity, nature, and the future.

Clarence Holbrook Carter (b. 1904, Portsmouth, OH, 1904—2000) attended the Cleveland School of Art, OH from 1923 – 1927. Carter has been included in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, TX; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Cincinnati Art Museum, OH; Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and the National Academy, New York, NY. He has held solo exhibitions at the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN; Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City; New Jersey State Museum, Trenton; Cleveland Art Center, OH; Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY; Suffolk Art Museum, Stony Brook, NY; Feragil Galleries, New York, NY; and Findlay Galleries, Chicago, IL. Carter is included in the public collections of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; and Columbus Museum of Art, OH.