- Tony Carter 1943 – 2016
- 3 easels, painted wooden chair and oil paint on photographic print with printed text
- Overall display dimensions variable
- Presented by Wendy Smith, the artist’s widow 2017
Virus – Of War and Subjective Seeing 1979−82 consists of a greatly enlarged photograph of a photograph that had previously been reproduced in a newspaper. The resulting half-tone dots have been meticulously over-painted by the artist, in the manner that he developed in earlier works such as Case – A Description of Prolonged Non‑Use (On Four Sides) 1972–3 (Tate T14932). The finished image has then been mounted above two labels that effectively caption the work – one is taken from the newspaper from which the image was sourced; the other is a short quotation from Thomas Mann’s book The Magic Mountain (1924). All three are contained within a frame that is displayed held on an easel, with another easel behind it. To one side is a third easel that holds a chair. The overpainted photograph shows refugees fleeing from the civil war in Bangladesh in 1971. At first the image appears to present an Arcadian idyllic landscape; the process of overpainting the half-tone dots does not immediately alter this reading beyond the injection of the filtering of an exoticising strangeness. The first caption, however, directly undercuts this reading of the image, explicitly describing the image’s context:
For the peasants of the East, the tramp of armies across their land, and the change of rulers brought about by force, have often disrupted life without in the end altering its settled pattern. Here in war-torn East Pakistan, now to be called Bangla Desh, villagers and ox-carts resume their comings and goings under the arch of trees which has always sheltered their road and past the clutter of some project their late masters never got round to starting.
The description here is of everyday activity overshadowed by the war that caused it. The second caption, drawn from Mann’s book, offers a commentary to this correction of how the image is read, while also suggesting that we see Carter’s process as being akin to the effects of a virus or disease:
He read of the existence of parasitic cell-juncture and of infectious tumours. These were luxuriant forms of tissue produced by foreign cell-bodies in an organism which had proved receptive to them. – Disease was a perverse, a dissolute form of life, and Life itself, perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter. – The first step toward evil, toward desire and death, was taken precisely when there took place that first increase in the density of the spiritual, that luxuriant, morbid growth, produced by the irritant of some unknown infiltration …
For the artist and critic Jon Thompson, in Carter’s work – exemplified by Virus – ‘What had started innocently as a neatly packaged and conceptually tight process work … had transformed itself into a site of profound psychological and creative struggle … A transfiguration will have occurred, doubling the object as subject.’ (Jon Thompson, ‘Seeing the Object as Subject – A Philosophy of the Eye’, in Anthony Reynolds Gallery 1989, unpaginated.) The virus was there in the process used to make the work – Carter described the process of over-painting as akin to the spread of a ‘cancerous growth’ – but also in how the image is subsequently mediated and read, the ‘subjective seeing’ of the work’s subtitle, so that one can be blind to the effects of war or see it as infecting all aspects of reality. Added to this, the presence of the easels and chair present the work in a particular way, not just as image or landscape but also to communicate its making. In Carter’s view, they ‘fend off the conventional reading of a painting and show instead […] the process involved in its making. This deployment is a means of dovetailing object reality and physical process, whilst emphasising the image dimension, which is the ultimate purpose.’ (Unpublished transcript of an interview between Tony Carter and Paul Kopocek, 24 April 1981, p.12.)
Carter’s attention to the image’s physicality – presented through a complex of easels as ‘plinth’ (ibid., p.13) – as well as to the primacy of ‘image dimension’ and its capacity for mediation and corresponding shifts of meaning, speaks in part to the effect of having been a student of Richard Hamilton (1922–2011) in the 1960s at the University of Newcastle.
Tony Carter, Images of Subject/Object Duality 1968–82, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1983.
Tony Carter, exhibition catalogue, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London 1989.
Tony Carter, Sculptures & Reliefs 1984–1991, exhibition catalogue, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge 1991.
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