Matthew Carter's newest series of paintings are a reminder that traditions of figuration and abstraction--though often treated as trends or movements supplanting one another throughout modern and postmodern art history-- are traditions of simultaneity. This is most eloquently manifested within Carter's consistent use of the harlequin pattern, which refers to the garb but can be read as an abstraction or a stand-in for the figure.
The word harlequin can be traced back to Alichino, the devil in Dante's Inferno and later hellequin, the medieval French word for “demon”. The harlequin we associate with representations of the court jester, "trickster," and comedic servant within Renaissance and post-Renaissance culture can be attributed to Tristan Martinelli's early enactment and appropriation of the zanni, a debased Venetian caricature of the rural peasant class who later became a stock character in French passion plays. Though it is unclear whether the zanni wore patchwork or rhombus and triangle-patterned garb, similar textiles are also associated with nomadic workers, vagabonds, and wanderers from other cultures who also existed in class-based marginality and precarity.
Many of the paintings in hellequinharlequinclown are limited by their own mode of construction: if built any larger, the already-warped frames would need cross-supports in order to function at all. These skeletal structures--built by cutting sections of reclaimed stretcher bars and fastening them the way one might sew together pieces of old fabric--are stretched with a transparent raw linen resembling a death shroud. Although the painterly logic of the image must reckon and wrestle with this irregular, almost abject physical form, the harlequin pattern-as-surface is also deployed as a conceptual framework for Carter's entire body of work. Evidence of this is the artist's assertionthat “pattern, as well as the defunctness of the thin profile bars, is embedded within the DNA of each painting."
Many representations of clowns depict the performer sitting in front of a mirror applying whiteface; this pre-performing, preparatory ritual occurring offstage is performative in and of itself. In the way that earlier harlequin masks and costumes gave license for the audience to gaze at the figure, the mirror provides the clown visual access to the spectator without a direct confrontation. While actual mirrors are used in only a few of the paintings in the exhibition, the reflectiveness of the glitter and transparency of the linen similarly allow the viewer to "look through" many of the works, catching only glimpses of the clown-like gestures and iconography that are never explicitly revealed. Once again, the material makeup of the pieces leads to their abstraction; the images' mobility and their proclivity towards advancing and receding from view parallels the temporality of the harlequin, hellequin and clown as identities within civic and performing culture.