Los Angeles

Carter Potter

Sue Spaid Fine Art

With the art world knee-deep in both nagging insecurities and a backlash desire to appear confidently hip, in-jokes are all the rage; indeed, about the worst thing you can say about a work of art these days is that it looks simply clever. This spells trouble for Carter Potter’s latest output, which is, if nothing else, as smart as a barbed whip. Potter weaves together motion-picture film strips as if they were colored thread and displays the resulting “fabric” on stretcher bars like paintings. Clever, yes, but Potter’s celluloid quilts manage to lead a surprisingly robust afterlife; the gesture is much more than a one-liner. Like a lot of art today, Potter’s winks; the difference is it also delivers.

Simultaneously high-tech and handcrafted, spectacular and homespun, Potter’s patchworks possess that certain mix of cosmic materiality and vague optimism that Peter Plagens once described as the hallmark of the “L.A. Look.” While the show’s press release places these objects in the tradition of Piet Mondrian and Ad Reinhardt, they actually look more like a cross between Larry Bell and Miriam Shapiro. Still, the works do make reference to Modernist painting proper by way of their geometric compositions and, to a much greater extent, their color. Potter weaves mainly “leader”—the first few feet of a reel of film used for threading a projector—most of which is factory-painted either white, red, yellow, or blue. As in Mondrian’s or Barnett Newman’s canvases, such colors endow Potter’s work with a matter-of-fact tone—these are the declarative shades of industry, of official signage, and of flags. Yet the quilts never really assume that much authority; the geometric patterns that animate their surfaces are delicate and intricate, not bold. Potter syncopates the overlapping and underlapping of horizontal and vertical strips to create patterns of variously sized rectangles and squares; the sprocket holes provide detailing.

Occasionally Potter sews in footage from actual TV commercials, and the sputtering, miniscule imagery contributes brief moments of arabesque patterning and minor incident (this becomes particularly ironic when the commercial images are of product logos, e.g. Mervyn’s or Kellogg’s corn flakes). Also mixed in are strips of clear celluloid that overlap blue and yellow film here and there to create aqua-greens and ambers. In Work Pix (Foot Cut & Cat Bit) (all works 1991), Potter uses enough clear film to make the surface translucent—the light pouring through and reflecting off the wall behind it gives the piece the look of a stained-glass window that actually seems to harbor an inner glow.

Ultimately, Potter tempers his work’s authority—spiritual and otherwise—simply by limiting his palette to editing-room scraps, to orphaned odds and ends. Though like Modernist painting it excludes literature and narrative, Potter’s art is characterized by a sense of displacement, not autonomy. The works are not paintings, yet as pictures they are exceptionally mute—images literally of the outside, scenes prior to the story or trimmed from its fringes. The closest Potter comes to telling a story is in the inclusion of strips of footage from the movie Edward Scissorhands, 1990, in a number of works. One work made solely from this footage, entitled Picture Fill (Scissorhands), is ironically the most silent in the show; it consists of a rectangle of densely overlapped black celluloid. Edward Scissorhands (the character) serves as an analog for Potter himself, the mythic artist standing behind these quilts. Like the quilts, he too is stitched together in bits and pieces, a forever fragmented subject, a bastard child in the most profound sense. Furthermore, his stigma, his garden-shear mits, become a sign not only of his difference but of his incompletion; though needy and inquisitive, he lacks the (pro)creative touch, able to render only by way of splicing and editing. Hence the images he makes, though they speak plainly and serenely, never come across as self-sufficient. Quite the opposite—they appear at once innocent and impure, noble and illegitimate.

Lane Relyea