Richard Carter’s New Angle

Andrew Travers The Aspen Times
Richard Carter poses next to his artwork at the Launchpad in Carbondale.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

If You Go…

What: Richard Carter, ‘Mandalas Considered’

Where: R2 Gallery in the Launchpad, Carbondale

When: Friday, June 3 through Friday, June 24; opening reception Friday, 6-8 p.m.; public interview with Lissa Ballinger of the Aspen Institute, June 23, 5:30 p.m.

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What: Richard Carter, James Surls, Jody Guralnick, Chris Hassig, ‘Drawings’

Where: The Art Base, Basalt

When: Friday, June 10 through Saturday, July 2; opening reception June 10, 5-7 p.m.

More info:

When a good idea finds Richard Carter, it often doesn’t let go of him for a long time.

Such was the case with his “Mandalas Considered” series, which consumed the Basalt-based painter for more than two years. A mandala — the Eastern religious symbol — might seem an unlikely point of inspiration for Carter, who is not religious and whose work has largely been concerned with science and natural phenomena.

“I’m not hooked into Buddhism or anything like that, but the form of it got my attention,” Carter said on a recent afternoon in his meticulously organized Basalt studio, where dozens of the new paintings were stacked against the walls.

As Carter discussed the new works, the rumble of the Roaring Fork River reverberated through the back door and his three-month-old Jack Russell Terrier, June, munched the edge of a throw rug.

“These things are as much drawings as they are paintings. And all of that is really spontaneous. … It allowed me to fool around with these colors I hadn’t fooled around with before — a lot of hot color.”Richard Carter

Carter’s painting career over the past three decades has progressed in mostly distinct periods: his signature “geometry paintings,” followed by works focused on the night sky, icebergs, lightning and fire. Before he was hooked by the mandalas, he’d been drawing for a number of years (“I ran out of painting juice,” he said) and then spent some time tinkering with ideas for a new direction. The universality of the mandala tied in with his scientific interests and his decadeslong work in geometric forms.

“Really that’s what my whole universal approach to painting is about — what’s going on in the universe?” he said. “Everything from subatomic to astrophysics. It’s all the same glue holding this stuff together.”

“Mandalas Considered,” opening today at the R2 Gallery in Carbondale, features a selection of the 50-plus paintings in the series. One-third of the proceeds from the show will go to the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities.

As he embarked on the project, Carter, consciously or not, began working with some clear constraints: square panels, with centered images, and heavily saturated colors. His recent interest in drawing made its way into the works, as he used a prismacolor pencil to layer linear shapes onto the canvases, sometimes surrounding the center, sometimes skittering asymmetrically away, often with color blocks running toward the panel’s borders.

“I wanted to be able to draw on the paintings, and I wanted to go back to what I was doing early in my career, which was the centered image,” he explained. “So I wanted to use it as a template and I wanted to do asymmetrical things.”

The limits he placed on the project created seemingly endless possibilities as he tested out new possibilities and permutations.

“It’s been the most amazing couple of years that I’ve had painting,” he said. “I would just finish one and flow right into the next one.”

He cycled through centered images from geometry, then tried Japanese symbols, then Celtic ones. He compared this kind of experimentation to using the scientific method for art. Carter’s colors began with the bold and bright, eventually moving into the muted blacks, reds and yellows of Russian Constructivism. His “Modern Mandala” brings midcentury modern visual vocabulary to the format.

His interest in science is evident throughout the works, which include line-drawn shapes inspired by particle collisions (his “Higgs Mandala” uses the arabesque shapes of the collision that led to the discovery of the Higgs-Bosson particle; others include scientific notation).

As methodical as the process was, it also allowed for spontaneity. He’d plan out his color palate before starting, and decide on a centered image, but would improvise the drawn portions.

“These things are as much drawings as they are paintings,” he said. “And all of that is really spontaneous. … It allowed me to fool around with these colors I hadn’t fooled around with before — a lot of hot color.”

The Launchpad show is Carter’s first in Carbondale. A fixture in the Roaring Fork Valley arts scene since the early 1970s, Carter began his career working as an assistant to Bauhaus great Herbert Bayer and helped found what would become the Aspen Art Museum.

This new body of work, in some ways, returns Carter to his roots. When he began working with Bayer in 1971, Carter was making wood reliefs of geometric shapes. Those pieces earned Carter, who didn’t attend art school and had been working construction and making art in a West End studio, his job with Bayer, who would shape Carter’s work ethic as an artist and much of his aesthetic interest. Carter is now 70, the same age Bayer was when Carter met him and began his seven-year apprenticeship. The echo of Bayer’s geometrical style is unmistakable in “Mandalas Considered.”

“It was better than art school, it was learning on the job,” he said of his years with Bayer.

The show will also include nine intricate abstract graphite drawings. They were inspired, a bemused Carter explained, when he was frying pine nuts for a salad. As they filled a frying pan, the nuts formed a pattern that interested him. He snapped a photo on his smartphone and returned to it later to draw the detailed patterns they created. In the drawings, they could be feathers or stones or a flame — there’s something universal about them, not unlike a mandala or other recurring shapes in Richard Carter’s work.

The pine-nut form also led Carter to a series of figure drawings where the nut-shapes form a character he’s called “Satch.” Those pieces will be included in a group show of drawings at the Art Base in Basalt, opening June 10, featuring work by Carter, James Surls, Jody Guralnick and Chris Hassig.