Fascinated by the way time works itself out art, the world, and the psyche, painter Rick Carter may be best known for his Oscar-winning production designs, including visual masterpieces and cultural touchstones like Goonies, Avatar, Lincoln, Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, Amistad, Star Wars and many more. But in a sprawling installation at the El Segundo Museum of Art, Carter marks the accumulation of his memories in a different way. TIME is an immersive floor-to-ceiling environmental collage built of Carter’s original portraits, paintings and process drawings, along with photographs, resonant memorabilia (like the park bench where Gump narrated his life story), and collaborative contributions by a cohort of participating artists who responded to Carter’s massive body of work in cinema. On view through March 25, ESMOA hosts a series of creative events, workshops, tours and presentations with Carter and the other artists. Carter responded to L.A. Weekly’s questions from his garage studio, where, despite the epic scope of the installation at ESMOA, he continues to “just have tons of stuff, thousands of paintings.”
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
RICK CARTER: I’ve been an artist my whole life, since I was a little kid just drawing, as any kid would. I loved drawing my fantasies which were all the heroes, whether it was King Arthur, Davy Crockett, Zorro or Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, and everybody went on a journey. These drawings I made my whole life up until I became an adolescent. As I started to get into film more, some of it shifted because it wasn’t so much about people as it was about places I’d been while traveling as a young man. That led into production design, which I didn’t yet know that I wanted to do — I didn’t know there was a job creating the worlds of the movies! Like everyone else, I just assumed you shoot whatever is there. You don’t really think about it, you just suspend your disbelief. So traveling was how I first got interested in all that, and gradually they said “yes,” and hired me.
It was really Steven Spielberg’s world, when I met him on Goonies, that opened up the idea that somebody would share a like sensibility to my own — an adventurous spirit and outsiderness, a kind of…otherness; an appreciation of something that’s “other.” And when somebody that you’re talking to gets what you’re saying, they build upon it and they’re actually in a position to give the say-so, it encourages you to go further with it, because you’re not still fighting to be understood. I think that’s what so many people are trying to do now — to be heard, seen, understood, felt.
Did you go to art school? Why/Why not?
I went to school as a sociology major and an art major in painting and drawing. Now that I look back on it, I can see that both of those fed into my work as a production designer, because I have not only the artistic point of view, but also the sociological point of view when I look at how people live and behave. So when I create a world with the set decorators and set designers, I’m looking to make it appear like it’s real enough for the way that people actually live, even if it’s aliens. On Pandora, we wanted to make it appear like the Na’vi could really live in Home Tree.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?
Honestly, I don’t see a very coherent trajectory nor sustainable life if I had not found a way to tap into art and make that viable. I think I could be somebody who’s just out there, not linked very strongly to reality. I have a deep desire to be connected to the world, but if I didn’t find a job that I could do that with, then I might be split between holding down a day job and then having a fantasy dream life. That disparity that I see lots of people having to traverse would have been my trajectory. I was so fortunate to be able to combine the two. And I had help from some very important people I met along the way, particularly Steven Spielberg, and then Bob Zemeckis and Jim Cameron. Those people really anchored my belief that I could be playing out these visionary dream states in a real way.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
I’m kind of like a prodigal son when it comes to L.A. I grew up here my entire life in West L.A. near the Veterans Administration below Sunset. I’m very much a West Los Angeles kid of the 1950s-60s. In the late 1960s I wanted to get away and go off. In the ‘70’s (when I was in my 20s), I was up at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, and I also dropped out of school twice to go traveling around the world. I was restless and I thought I was backed into a corner; I knew somehow that my life was not yet full enough. [In the course of those travels, I came to realize how] amazing it is, what people do in their cultures to make life happen. I saw so many people that became like grains of sand that burrowed into my brain, and turned into pearls of an oyster. These faces reflect back to me and are my point of orientation of all these worlds that I get to go to, and build, now. You know, I’ve traveled in and out of it, but L.A. has always been the core place that’s allowed me to pursue these other worlds.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show or project?
The TIME exhibit at ESMOA is not only a great opportunity for me to recollect and look back at what I’ve done and what adventures I’ve been on both as a film artist and paint artist, but also to work with Bernard Zünkeler, the curator, who put it all together, as well as the artists ESMOA invited to collaborate. They were asked to come in basically trip out with me about the themes and imagery that’s in all the movies I’ve worked on, so that I could see what kind of life my work has, how it exists in the culture right now. To have that come back so strongly made me feel that there is maybe something to this idea that I can use my history as a basis when I move forward in my own work of life. It’s interesting to me because also, I finished a movie last year that I designed with Steven Spielberg called The Fabelmans, and that’s his autobiographical look back at growing up and what led him into becoming a filmmaker.
That kind of retrospective — looking back to try to bring you into the present so that it could propel you into the future — is what I feel strongly about, that somehow I started on a mind-bending trip with Back to the Future 2 which really never stopped, and here it is in the present with ESMoA in a show called TIME. I call it Level 7, it’s like being a teenager, only in reverse. Whatever you know you felt as a teenager, that was so real in your teens and early 20s, imagine you take all of that and flip it to the other side of your life. It’s a new passage that is very alive and very different from what it felt like decades before. I can’t tell you exactly what I’m doing next, but I’ve certainly taken up a lot of interest in what other people are doing!
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