Beth Carter’s work was always a big Chelsea favorite with New Yorkers who flocked to the late Bertrand Delacroix’s gallery to see her amazing sculptures and drawings. Some of her most arresting work has dealt with human/animal hybridizations which seem to betray remorse while reflecting on natural drives and predispositions. Indeed, the extent to which we possess freedom and the extent to which we are capable of meaningful transformation seem present in much of her work. She has also worked with the concept of duality, revealing aspects of vulnerability and power, intellect and instinct, innocence and corruption. She is now represented in NY at Hugo Galerie in Soho. Beth Carter lives in Bristol, England.
You mentioned your new project involves your ancestors. What's this about, how did you get there and is it much of a departure from what you've done before?
My father died 5 years ago; this new work stems from thoughts and feelings about where people go after they die, and more specifically how their spirits or energy carry on through the living. I’m still in the experimental stages gathering materials (mainly bones) so it’s hard to say at this early stage how or if this work will depart from my usual work.
Your father was an artist and you were close to him - how did he impact you?
My father was a very influential figure in my life, he was a complex and unconventional character often deeply troubled by anger and depression. Despite or maybe because of this, he had huge creative energy and an expansive imagination. He encouraged and inspired me from a very young age, he also worried and scared me at times. He valued art, beauty and craftsmanship highly and passed these things on to me, he also showed me it’s vital to believe in illusions…‘Therefore trust thy heart to what the world calls illusions’ was a favourite quote of his…and mine.
You once jokingly mentioned to Bertrand Delacroix that a good title for one of your shows would be: ‘Tales to Kill Sorrow'. You said he liked it but explained that having 'kill' and 'sorrow' in the same sentence was too much for New Yorkers as they needed something a little more upbeat. Did you agree or disagree? Are New Yorkers maybe a little too exuberant and optimistic compared to Europeans?
After living in New York for 18 months, I definitely think New Yorkers are more upbeat than Europeans generally speaking, and, happily, it's a contagious thing! Although Bertrand was French he had been in New York for so long he'd definitely gone native...I love the title 'Tales to Kill Sorrow’ for an exhibition, I think it's upbeat! (I read it somewhere but I can't recall where.) We ended up calling the show ‘Dancing with Morpheus’.
I love your little sculptures of Minotaurs reading books and when I asked you what they read you jokingly said, "Probably ghost stories with lots of pictures." OK, seriously, what do Minotaurs read? In your sculptures they seem to be using their leisure time to engage in the examined life - trying to come to grips with themselves, trying to change...no? Seriously, are you telling me these guys are just whiling away the time on ghost stories?
My Minotaurs have surprisingly varied reading tastes; I’ve found them reading 'Essential Surrealists' and 'Metamorphosis' as well as some poetry by Ben Okri, Lorca, and Ted Hughes, but mostly they are obsessed with the writings and drawings of Andreas Vesalius, because (I think) they are both fascinated and devastated by the human body in its pure un-hybridised form, the drawings and descriptions keep them painfully aware that they can never undo their origins... Minotaurs are not at all interested in Greek mythology!
In one of my reviews of your work I focus on a human body with the head of a wolf as it carries a dead deer. The body language of the creature seems to indicate he/she is grieving for the deer. Interestingly, it looks as if the very first moral problem ever addressed by religion was how we can live with or justify our hunting of other sentient creatures for our own survival. Shamans used to make spirit journeys to get the OK from the Master of Animals before hunts. How extensively have you studied mythology/religion and what's your relationship to it in your art?
I have not studied mythology or religion in a formal way. I approach my subjects intuitively as opposed to academically, I feel drawn towards a subject rather than consciously researching and selecting one. I'm interested in the symbolism of animal imagery because it speaks of human concerns so poignantly. My sculptures often seem to exist in the conflicted space between their instincts and their more civilized impulses, our relationship to animals is a complex and fascinating one, animals are powerfully interwoven into our human psyche. As I work, I do sometimes dip into some myths or folklore, I’ve always been a magpie selecting and using anything which appeals to me and which corresponds to a more personal subject or myth I'm trying to express. Myths are just stories to help us explain our world to ourselves.
Spinoza once wrote that people believe themselves to be free merely because they are conscious of their actions. Do you think some of your creatures have read Spinoza? (Some seem to be aware of the limits to their freedom, understand their biological drives and predispositions but don't seem to be too enthralled by all this.)
The human element to my creatures is constantly trying to reconcile its animal element and vice a versa, they may have read Spinoza (!) they are not free, as you say they are too aware of their limits, predispositions etc… I think they are more concerned with transformation than freedom.
I recall a work I saw at Bertrand Delacroix's gallery called ‘Free Reign’. A human figure with the head of a horse is kneeling and haplessly holding his own reigns – as if a creature who theoretically moves beyond drives and desires and gains freedom might actually be lost. You sometimes have characters being led by others, some characters riding on top of others - what are you doing here?
The 'Free Reign' figure is at a loss as to what to do with his own freedom and choices… where to lead himself… I often play with the balance of power between two or more figures - in my piece 'Leading the Giant' a small girl leads a much larger figure with a thin piece of string, it is the giant who appears lost and vulnerable not the small girl. Some other examples of this dynamic in my work are, 'Grinders Monkey’, 'Rag Donkey ' and 'Monkey and Hare'. The main themes, which reoccur, are of vulnerability and power, intellect and instinct, innocence and corruption.
After you finished your formal education you traveled to Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Mexico, Gambia, Kenya and Tanzania. How did this help you develop your work?
Travel for me is like replenishing my library of images to be used sometime later. I had a 3-month residency at a bronze foundry in Mexico, which was one of the richest veins of imagery for me. Mexico is a very visual culture with powerful symbolism; the life there seems to make religion, death, surrealism and comedy into a living everyday theatre.