Smile Politely

Edgy yet fluid, Beneath a Summer Sky redefines the art of watercolor

Let me start with a confession. Reviewing an exhibition of watercolors is, for me, a rarity. My relationship to watercolors, both in practice and as a viewer, is complicated. At times, they try my patience. You can find me either waiting for a layer to dry, hair dryer in hand, or, when en plein air, anxiously working against the ticking clock that is natural light. You could say we’ve been frenemies. I have a deep appreciation for those who master this medium, even when the content of their work falls outside of my preferred styles and subjects. But as in many challenging relationships, discomfort can yield growth. And then sometimes, someone comes along who redefines the playing field. Carol Carter’s recent exhibition, Beneath a Summer Sky, is a game changer, transforming my sense of what watercolors can do.

From the moment I saw the exhibition poster I knew this exhibition would be unlike anything I’d seen before. The signature imageBlistering Effect of Hearing the News, demanded my attention and held it as I considered its surprisingly bold use of color and fluid shapes. In her website artist statement, Carter shares that her goal “is to create work with intimacy, mysteriousness, and sensuality. But, at its best, my work also has an edge; something in it that takes a moment, a second look, an effort to comprehend.”

Her work exists in the space between dualities, where the tension is both visceral and productive. Working against traditional watercolor norms, most of the work in Beneath the Summer Sky is on a large scale and is filled with deeply saturated color. Carter writes that these choices result in images that are “seductive, powerful, and strangely disquieting.”

Two highly saturated painting in red orange and deep blue against a white wall with a side wall view of a painting with a woman lying in water.

Photo by Debra Domal.

If I had to choose one word to describe Carter’s approach to her subjects it would be ‘elemental.’ Bodies of water, often the environment with which Carter’s human figures interact, appear in a majority of the work. In some cases, as in the signature image and those below, the deep blues are contrasted by the fiery orange-reds of human emotion and will. The compositions depict, to borrow from Carter’s language, “confrontations” between human and nature that explore the dualities of “clarity and ambiguity; sanctuary and threat; pleasure and pain.”

Much of Beneath a Summer Sky was created during the early year(s) of the pandemic, a contextualizing fact that clearly shaped the artist’s content and approach, as well as the viewer’s experience of it. The sense of aloneness is palpable. Solo encounters in nature seem COVID safe, but never let us forget that water can be both cleansing and destructive. The element of water is often associated with emotion, and that connection rings true here. 

On the left several of Carter's Buddha series paintings, on the right the highly saturated paintings mentioned above.

Photo by Debra Domal.

As I walked through the gallery I found myself considering how many people adopted watercolor painting as a meditative practice during those early months of pandemic lockdown. What did it matter if drying times were long when it seemed as if time had stopped?

On the left a close up of a painting from the Buddha series, on the right a painting of back view of a woman emerging from the water.

Photo by Debra Domal.

Water is not just the environment for many of these painting, it figures into Carter’s fluid style and technique. In the compelling Buddha series, the earthy olive green tones range in saturation, highlighting what we can’t see. I found myself thinking about the notion of detachment, both in terms of the Buddhist ideal and pandemic life reality.

On the left, against a blue wall, a painting with a woman lying down holding her knees to her chest. On the right, a painting of a orange hued woman emerging from a deep blue body of water against a white wall.

Photo by Debra Domal.

Several of the paintings portray the act of self-soothing, perhaps another pandemic-inspired trope. In the work above, the figure hugs itself into a ball, transforming into something whole and self-contained.

A wide shot of Carol Carter's paintings of horses.

Photo by Debra Domal.

Beneath a Summer Sky also contains two series of animal paintings. I found the horse portraits particularly compelling, with their barely-there backgrounds and expressive faces. They were unlike any portrayal of a horse I’d seen before. Despite their apparent simplicity, they embodied a surprising amount of personality and expression. 

A white shot of an entire wall filled with small portraits of pets.

Photo by Debra Domal.

In contrast to her larger work, the back wall of the gallery is filled with small portraits of pets, inspired by the number of cats and dogs adopted during the pandemic. They represent connections made during a time of detachment. They are evidence of life-saving transformation. 

After spending a decade focused entirely on the art of watercolor, Carol Carter expanded into acrylics. And while those acrylic or hybrid works do not appear in this exhibition, I seemed to pick up on their scent. I found myself wondering if the distinctive texture and weight of acrylic paint had transformed her approach to watercolors. As pandemic life has taught us, leaving our comfort zone to explore the unexpected is itself a duality, one filled with discomfort and growth. 

Beneath a Summer Sky has made a watercolor fan of me after all. I just had to find the artist whose work speaks most to me. I have also come to appreciate the self-soothing quality of approaching watercolors with patience. Through her own work, Carol Carter has given me permission to imagine my own take on this medium. For this I will always be grateful. 

Whether you are a practitioner of watercolor or just enjoy experiencing work in this medium, experience Beneath a Summer Sky: Watercolors by Carol Carter before it closes on July 28.

Beneath a Summer Sky: Watercolors by Carol Carter
Through June 28th
Giertz Gallery at Parkland College
2400 W Bradley Ave
M-W 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Th 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Top photo by Debra Domal.

Arts Editor

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