Nathan Carter had a revelation when, as a middle-schooler, he visited the Whitney Museum and saw the creative and whimsical feat of imagination that is Calder’s Circus. “I remember being confused,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Wait, this is how I played with my toys. What was this doing in a museum?” It was the first time he saw the power that storytelling could imbue in visual art, but it would be years before Carter, later known primarily as an abstract artist, would come full circle to tackle his own interpretation of the concept.
Carter’s debut as a storyteller is epitomized in Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Dramastics, a site-specific installation that’s currently on view at MCA Denver. Meet the Dramastics tells its tale of the rise and fall of an all-girl rock band in great detail, with a naive, made-by-hand sensibility and a touch of Calder’s id-driven whimsy floating throughout. Through a formative series of conversations with the MCA’s Adam Lerner, Carter found the freedom to pull together a set of influences — from his reckoning with Calder’s playful universe to the L.A. and D.C. punk-rock scenes and all of punk’s “loud, sweaty women singing loud, sweaty music” — and fully realize the project.
The road to the Dramastics began a few years ago, when Carter started experimenting with large drawings of imagined scenarios and tales of espionage that diverged from the abstract forms for which he was known. “It was totally a fantasy about a Russian version of a rust-belt industrial mining city that was now the data-collection hacking capital of world,” he says. “I made those stories, but the pieces were either composed of abstract forms or stories of worlds and places, but there were never any figures. One day, out of the blue, I made a group of drawings that looked like actors on an abstract stage set, with figures in interesting clothing. I tiled them all together and thought, ‘This is so complex-looking — but there’s no story.'”
While discussing his dilemma with a friend in New York — an “old French punk rocker from the ’70s” — Carter zoned in on some proactive advice: “He took two fingers, and he poked me, and he said, ‘Look at this sculpture — no one is looking at it. You have to make a film that will fit on a thumb drive.’ Walking away from him, that was the part that resonated most with me. I had to make a film. I turned around and decided, ‘I’m gonna make a film about four women who get out of high school ready to explore the world, who form a group and have adventures. And I'm gonna do everything myself.’”
So, he recalls, he began “dreaming up vignettes about the stuff that happens to a band when they're on tour — the first rehearsal in a dirty, malodorous space with bugs crawling about, trying to make a song, arguing, playing live for first time and dealing with a mean promoter who tells you, ‘Don't touch anything and you’re done in fifteen minutes,’ recording in a studio where you are asked, ‘What are you going to add to the last forty years of rock-and-roll history?’ Then they have a bigger show, things go to their heads, and they have an amicable breakup in Paris. One has to go to college.” That idea birthed The Dramastics Are Loud AF, a homemade film that brought the Dramastics to life.
“I had never made a show that started with a script or story first,” Carter says. “I’d never written a script before, and I’d never recorded voices from a script. If you asked me to explain f-stops or ISOs, I couldn't help you. So it’s cut fast and loose. It has more of an enthusiastic than a technical quality to it, and it echoes the music I listened to when I was growing up.
“I wrote all the songs,” adds Carter, who’d had some experience playing bass and guitar in various bands, “and I tried to play drums, but my mistakes were too charming. Then we recorded a woman who does the voice of Molly Blowout, the lead singer of the Dramastics. We encouraged her to do the singing, and it was kind of magic. She was raised in the Hollywood scene in the ’80s, and she knew the moves.”
Encouraged by Lerner, Carter took the kernel of that film, built on his practice as a sculptor and artist, and created Meet the Dramastics, which not only tells a story, but invites its audience to live it — on an interactive stage with props that doubles as a photo booth. And there’s merchandise, too, thanks to a chance Instagram connection with X frontman John Doe, who recommended a Bay Area clothing company, Featherweight Studio. Featherweight's Dramastics T-shirts and tote bags are for sale at the museum.
That interactivity is the installation’s primary undercurrent, and it runs in more ways than you’d immediately imagine, beginning with the long table that dissects the front of the exhibit (inspired by the idea of a dinner among artists and friends in his home studio) and the crew of young women who helped Carter create it. He relied on “having a group of women around me who were similar to the women in the band and listening to the meter of the way they talk — in acronyms and fast," he explains. "There’s something about their energy in the room as they were helping me. Their presence affected the way I made things for the exhibition.”
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And as a viewer, you’re a part of the experiment, too. Carter’s final vision for Meet the Dramastics has a “Let’s just do it and see what happens” quality that’s inspiring — which, he adds, is also part of his plan: “I want the viewer to have an experience of walking into something and thinking, ‘Oh, I'm gonna make my own version of this.'”
DIY or die.
MCA will host the Dramastics Blowout Weekend starting Thursday, November 17, through Saturday, November 19; a sit-down dinner within the Meet the Dramastics installation on November 18 is sold out, but tickets are still available for an artist talk and film screening on November 17 and a dance party on November 19. Visit MCA Denver online for details and tickets. The Meet the Dramastics exhibition runs through January 29.