Dancing with
Color and Light

ESSAY BY RICHARD SPEER

Prism Paintings by David Carter

“Carter boldly foregoes the conventions of suspended pigment on canvas and instead paints directly with color, light, and space…”

–Richard Speer, Critic/Curator

Inevitably, the first thing art lovers do when they see David Carter’s Prism Paintings is to bob and sway back and forth, up and down, as if following the lead of the paintings’ dance of color and light. Whenever viewers change position, the paintings’ geometric patterns seem to move alongside them in three-dimensional space. It is an experience that never fails to surprise and delight—like dancing with a hologram or a rainbow. Soon, viewers are asking questions: Is it a hologram? (No.) Is the painting plugged in to an electrical outlet? (No.) Does it require batteries or LED lights? (No.) Does it have to be under special gallery lighting to produce these amazing effects? (No.) Well, then, what am I seeing, and how can such a thing exist? This requires a longer answer.

Prism Paintings, which are Carter’s exclusive creation, are mixed-media assemblages incorporating painted and sculptural elements under a frosted Plexiglas veil, which acts as a prism. This veil refracts light two ways, first as light enters the picture plane and secondly as it bounces off reflective materials inside. The combination of reflection and double-refraction produces a parallax effect, sending dazzling images into the perceiver’s consciousness and yielding the impressions of motion and three-dimensionality. In Carter’s unique and visionary tours de force, he boldly foregoes the conventions of suspended pigment on canvas and instead paints directly with color, light, and space. Color is the content, light the catalyst, and space the environment where the mind-bending chromatic pyrotechnics take place. There is something magical and uplifting about these paintings, which exude visual glamour, joie de vivre, and a highly aestheticized sex appeal. For their full impact to be appreciated, they truly must be seen in person.

Despite their gee-whiz appeal and modernist/futuristic looks, there is nothing newfangled about the way these works are created. They are traditional fine-art paintings lovingly made by hand with archival art media in Carter’s studios in Portland, Oregon, and Palm Springs, California. In the lineage of geometric abstraction, minimalism, and the California Light and Space movement, they are the end results of the artist’s ongoing experimentation with optical properties, filtered through spiritual inquiry and awareness. Almost every piece begins while Carter is immersed in his daily meditation practice. As his creative spirit opens, “colors and the general sense of form begin to emerge, instantaneously and mysteriously. I have no idea how it happens.”

After that initial vision comes a period of intense planning, sketching, gathering and wrangling materials, creating support structures, experimenting and improvising as he brings the compositions to life. In addition to acrylic paint, he deploys a wide array of other fine-art materials to capture, magnify, and intensify light. His exact working methods are closely guarded secrets. As with a magic trick, the point is not for the audience to learn the secrets, but to enjoy and celebrate the unknown. “These pieces are about flow and mystery,” Carter explains. “The Plexiglas veil is a prism that dissolves the known world and moves into mystery. If someone can let go of their boundaries and suspend the need to know, move into a flowing part of their soul, let their eyes feast on the color, this is where the magic happens.” That magic is what makes the paintings’ immaculate geometries appear to jostle, project, retract, and glide before viewers’ very eyes. Motion is key. “The pieces are beckoning the viewer to move. They’re saying, ‘Come into my world, relax your body and mind, and I’ll lead the way. Come and move with me.’”

Movement is something Carter understands. Before he became an artist, he had a brilliant career as a figure skater, a sport that marries gracious interpretive movement with almost superhuman agility and strength. Later, as an entrepreneur, he founded the influential Wonderland School franchise, teaching children to dance and move their bodies. As a prolific sculptor based for many years in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he pushed the boundaries between kinetic and potential energies, creating artworks poised on the knife’s edge between illusion and reality, stillness and utter sensual abandon. These qualities carry over into the Prism Paintings.

Human beings have always marveled at the rapturous phemonema that light, color, and motion bring forth. Our prehistoric ancestors gazed in wonderment at eclipses, shooting stars, and the aurora borealis. In more recent ages we have swooned under the bedazzlements of fireworks, candlelight, Japanese lanterns, neon, and LED’s. The modalities have morphed over time, but the ancient mystique endures: light, color, and motion as channelers of ecstatic experience and the promise of transformation.

Under the thrall of geodes and rainbows, the jaw-dropping sunsets of his native California and the honeyed, gloaming light of New Mexico, David Carter has cultivated a lifelong love affair with the healing potentialities of the electromagnetic spectrum. “Light and color impact our souls in both subtle and profound ways. Not just individual colors, but every combination of blended colors evokes a particular felt sense, which moves beyond conceptual understanding and has the capacity to change us for the better, both physically and psychologically. In these pieces I’m blending light-colors, so there are no clear divisions between one color and another. There’s an interplay, a union, and a boundlessness that comes with being undivided, which I feel deeply in my soul. As the world becomes more and more divisive, these pieces are beckoning us to join together to find places of interplay and exchange.”

—Richard Speer is a curator and art critic whose reviews and essays have appeared in ARTnews, Art Papers, Artpulse, Visual Art Source, Salon, Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune. He has curated exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (University of Oregon, Eugene). For more information, please visit www.richardspeer.com