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Various Small Fires
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Clarence Holbrook Carter at Various Small Fires


Bluntly titled “American Surrealist,” a solo show by Clarence Holbrook Carter (1904-2000) at Various Small Fires lives up to this moniker. While the press release compares Carter to luminaries like Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, Carter’s work is relatively unknown, and it was a surprise for me to discover. The show pulls from various periods of the artist’s work, the oldest painting in the show, a graceful portrait of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot,” dates back to 1927. Even in this early work, the artist gives the Lady a green halo floating above her face as if exuding some kind of aura, infusing her with a ghostly presence. In the 1970s that aura becomes flattened into an egg-like orb that floats elegantly across various landscapes like sci-fi visions. Later, in the work from the 1980s and 1990s, those orbs get a bit more Magritte with flattened compositions that feature the orb floating over objects or peer into architectural spaces through open windows.

Perhaps most captivating in the show is the “Over and Above” series from the 1960s which, in a departure, feature ominous animals floating above flat planes of color, as if peering over a tall wall — rats with beady red eyes, and tarantulas with fangs out and hairy legs descending loom above, frozen in place. At their large scale, the paintings at first appear menacing, though soon make way for a more tender confrontation — as if as viewers we are able to face our fears head on, and come out unscathed. Whether portraits, animals, or ghostly orbs, this confrontation of our inner selves is at the crux of Carter’s surreal manifestations.

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Photo: Clarence Holbrook Carter, “Over and Above No. 15,” 1964. Image courtesy the estate of Clarence Holbrook Carter and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles/Seoul.