Todd Carpenter on art, neuroscience and seeing the light

Like many painters, Todd Carpenter is drawn to light. His densely wooded forests, polluted factories and apocalyptic-looking cityscapes — all rendered in muted gray tones or stark black and white — depict slices of sunlight between crowded tree trunks, glimmering tufts of smoke rising from industrial chimneys, luminescent cloud formations or swaths of early-morning haze skimming a lake’s surface.

As a trained neuroscientist, however, Carpenter sees light as more than just a subject; it’s an experiment, too.

Each painting currently on view at KP Projects/MKG is a different approach to light, says Carpenter, who used to teach neuroscience at San Diego’s New School of Architecture and Design. His work aims to explore how viewers perceive light and use it to navigate spatial relationships and the world around them.

“I have a theory, going back to neuroscience, that there’s two ways we look at the world,” Carpenter says. “Kind of a symbolic way — the thing that’s connected to our language, our words — and the other side of our brain, that’s more raw, perceptual, the thing that sees the curves and tries to figure out: ‘Is that an animal?’ to survive.

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 “I paint light because that part of the brain is just looking at shapes and shadows. I’m trying to tap into that crude system that sees space.”

Science also binds the seemingly disparate works in Carpenter's exhibition. His paintings are all named after organic molecules that exist in plants.

“I wanted to come up with a show that connects trees, buildings and factories,” Carpenter says. “My subjects are diverse, but they’re connected by carbon — which is the basis for life.”

Painting with a handcrafted palette knife he makes from a Starbucks card — “it’s the perfect thickness and flexibility of plastic” — much of Carpenter’s brushwork has an organic quality; the broad, layered smears give many of his tiny cities painted on board a geometric, almost three-dimensional feel.

Working mostly from memory rather than photographs, these urban locations are imaginary amalgamations of Los Angeles, Seoul, Tokyo, Toronto and New York, he says, and his mountain range landscapes are nebulous, vaguely reminiscent of Death Valley and areas east of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

If this evokes a sense of sublime disorientation, that's the point. One water-rimmed mountainscape, depicting dark gray shadows on a largely all-black canvas, could be Lake Tahoe, Carpenter says, or perhaps the South American Andes.

“You can feel lost in these,” Carpenter says of his work. “And that’s reassuring in a sense because there’s so many distractions — and that can be freeing.”

“Todd Carpenter — Carbon” will be on view at KP Projects/MKG, 170 S. La Brea Ave. , through Saturday.

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