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An Interview with Darel Carey

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

A few months ago, I was perusing the internet and came across a video of this guy taking a roll of tape and transforming a space by laying out this crazy linear pattern. I was immediately infatuated and had to see more, so I did some clicking around and that’s when I found Darel Carey. Carey has an impressive body of tape, and sometimes painted, installations that alter and distort the spaces they’re in using only line. From single walls to entire rooms, Carey uses line and pattern to alter our perception of flat white and creates these magnificently deep, flowing, and seemingly eternal spaces. One of the most impressive things about the work is how organically they come together and how each space is treated and represented differently. If you watch the videos of Carey creating these installations, he really just analyzes the space and goes, it’s incredible to watch.

I could stare at the videos of Carey making his work for hours, I could look at the work itself for hours longer, and I honestly wish I was better equipped to describe his work but I can’t put into words the spatial understanding that must go into these. Fortunately though, I got to talk to Carey about his journey into art, his developing career and the amazing installations that he makes. He gave an awesome interview with some great insights and cool stories, it’s a great read, and I’m sure he’ll quickly become one of your favorite artists just like he’s become one of mine. Enjoy!

1. I always like to start off interviews by asking about the artists beginnings in art, so what got you started? I know you took a bit of a drastic career change to pursue art later in life, what inspired this? What has made you the artist that you are?

I've always been drawn to art since I was young. I used to draw robots and birds. I liked to draw cartoony things, but was also interested in realism. Throughout my teenage years, I was into graffiti, and in my 20's I did more graphic design. All of this was on the side though, as a hobby. In short, I was all over the place creatively, but never really knew my direction, and never really knew that art was something I could pursue as a career. I enlisted in the Air Force at 19, and worked as a Language Analyst for 11 years. And something made me stop, and switch gears toward a life in art.

Right after high school, a friend of mine, Kathy, started tattooing, and convinced me to start as well. I shadowed her, and learned a little bit. But after a little while, she got a job at a shop, and I wasn't welcome to hang around there. And soon after, I got in the military, and started a completely different life. Fast forward 8 years, one day I happened to turn on a TV (I hadn't watched TV for a few years at that point) and saw my friend in a commercial. It was Kathy, the tattoo artist, but on TV she had her own show and her name was Kat Von D. I was awestruck, and excited to see someone I knew doing big things. It really made me think a lot about what I was doing with my life. I was certainly happy doing what I was doing, I enjoyed my job. But I had a passion for creating, and seeing Kathy succeed showed me that it was possible. There was one point, when I was 18, where we were in the exact same spot, just starting to tattoo. But at some point she continued her passion, and I followed what I thought was a viable, stable career path.

I thought about this a lot, about what I should do, or if I should do anything. But the more I thought about it, the more resolute I became. It ultimately boiled down to one question for me: If I didn't try to pursue art as a career, would I regret it? The answer was: yes. Once that was settled for me, I was convicted. And I needed to be because I got so much resistance from everyone, except my wife. Everyone in the military told me to stay in and finish my 20 years so I could retire, then try something with art. I was already halfway, it would be stupid to get out to do what, art?! Not only that.. when I was getting out of the military, I had several job offers in the intel field because of my training and clearances. I turned all of those down as well in order to go to art school. By the time my term in the Air Force was up, I was 11 years in, that was in 2012. As soon as I got out, I started my first semester at Otis College of Art and Design in LA. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, so instead of taking a specific major like graphic design or digital, I went to fine arts, so I could explore many genres and mediums, discover myself, and hopefully hone in on a creative path. I tried many things, photography, oil painting, sculpture, ceramics, to name a few. Although I liked to do a lot of things, a recurring theme for me was lines, forms, and things to do with perception. One of my favorite classes at Otis was The Psychology of Seeing, taught by Dr. Spruijt. Once I realized that my interest was heightened in the realm of perception, I continued down that path. It was the beginning of a convergence of my interest in art and scientific thinking.

2. Diving right into your vast body of work I've got to ask, is it all just tape? You push a relatively unused medium to levels most can't even fathom, what inspired this idea at the start? What made this your main artistic endeavor? Was it this from day one or did/has it continually developed?

Most of my work in the past several years are tape installations, although about a fourth are painted murals in the same aesthetic. During my senior year at Otis College in 2015, our studio had a group show, and we decided to grid up the entire gallery with tape. The plan was to then show our work in or on the grid. I happily took on the task of taping the grid, and as I was doing this, it dawned on me that this was a great medium. It was versatile, easy to use, and I could go on the floor and walls, and simply take it down afterwards with little consequence. For that show I decided to make my first tape installation. It was minimalistic and geometric; perceived as stacked cubes sitting in the corner of the gallery from a specific vantage point. Later that year for my senior show, I combined the use tape with my optical line drawings, and that was the first iteration of what you see me doing today. I can't quite say that it was my main artistic endeavor because there a lot of different things I want to do. But it was an egg in one of many baskets that I've been running with for the past several years.

There is a sense of continual development, both visually and philosophically. I started out with vantage points, creating a perception of volume in corners and spaces. As I kept working with the lines, I started to appreciate the process and the effect of gradual change. I began to work more organically without specific vantage points, placing each line based on the line before it, and seeing what forms emerged from that process. I also noticed how implied curved lines emerged from patterns of straight lines, and this is where I began relating it to nature, to emergent properties. Simple things such as lines can self organize and form something greater than the sum of its parts, as in nature. A murmuration of starlings or a school of fish, for example, are made up of individuals acting upon what is immediately around them, and beautiful natural shapes are formed in the bigger picture. I became fascinated by emergence, and simplicity to complexity, and now my art informs my knowledge of the world, and my knowledge of the world informs my art.

3. I've watched countless videos of you taking one or several white walls and transforming a space with a roll of tape and the thing that's always perplexed me is how organically it all seems to come together. What is the planning like for each piece? Do you just dive right in? Is there a rigorous planning process? Or does it vary from piece to piece (and if so how does it)?

There's no rigorous planning, it's a very organic process. I treat every space individually, and imagine how the space can be transformed. I think about the general direction of the lines or starting points. But once I get started, I'm adding each line organically, based on the last line. It involves accuracy, consistency, and gradual change. In short, I look at the big picture, and pay attention to the details... everything in between works itself out.

4. How do you relate to each space that you work with? You're quite drastically transforming them so how does each space differ in terms of your intent and goals? Is this intent altered by the scale of your projects?

When I have a new space, I envision it as a viewer, as an experiencer, of the completed work. I think about what direction would best suit that space, and how I can get the impact I'm looking for. For example, is the space going to be looked at straight on or is it a long wall that will be walked along from side to side? Will the lines and forms be best experienced vertically or horizontally? Or should I start from one point, or use color? Scale can alter my intent, along with feasibility, and time. Some of my decisions are based on the space, some are arbitrary.

5. Does the impermanence of tape have any significance? Or do you take steps post-application to make the work more permanent?

It depends on the purpose of what I'm doing. It can have significance, but this has slowly changed for me. When I started using tape, I considered the ephemerality an important aspect of the installations. It had a lot to do with documenting the process, as the documentation would be all that was left eventually. This is one reason I time-lapsed my work. But ultimately, for me it's more about the lines than it is about the tape. My work with lines transcends my work with tape, but my work with tape does not transcend my work with lines. So I began creating dimensional murals as well.. ironically, still using tape for part of the process, just taking more steps for permanence. And aside from that, some of the work I'm doing is fully digital as well, which has a different kind of permanence.

6. Going more into material a little bit more, your work is obviously driven heavily by line. How do you push the limits of line or shape in each piece? What inspires the decision to used more curved lines as opposed to more rigid edges? What inspires your more shape driven work? Do they all connect?

When I started drawing and painting lines, I used a lot of curved lines. I liked to naturally flow where the tool would best go, and once I had one line down, the rest would follow from that. Because of the properties of tape as a medium, using tape is basically drawing with straight lines. Although it looks quite different from my curved-line drawings, the concept is similar regarding process: accurately maintaining consistency in the distance between the lines, and only making gradual changes. In the tape installations, as I've mentioned above, although I'm using nothing but straight lines, there are forms and curvature that emerge from the process. This is where my tape installations differ from the curved-line drawings. Since the lines in the drawings are already curved, implied curvature isn't as obvious. But when all the lines are rigid and straight, implied curvature is easily noticeable. For me it ends up being an aesthetic choice, and it depends on what tools I'm using. Recently I've done a couple of line murals using spray paint, and when using spray paint I make the lines curved. I think they connect conceptually, but are dependent on what tools I'm using to make the lines.

7. Going further off of that, I've noticed you adding splashes of color to your work here and there. How does that differ from your usual work? what makes a piece in color different than a black piece? Does the variety create a more difficult and, perhaps, more intricate element of dimension?

For me, using color adds another element of dimension to the work. Creating gradients using flat colored lines follows the same concept of graduality that is inherent in my process. It does add an extra layer of difficulty because I have to keep track of more things at once. When a piece is just black, the focus is solely on the dimensionality. I started out just using black, and also using the same width of tape throughout my installations. I did this because I wanted to create the most with the least, to get complexity from the simplest units. With the color and width of lines constant, I had to find other ways to create particular effects. For example, instead of changing the size of the lines to create the illusion of depth, I'd change the distance between them. I slowly started adding color gradients to my work once I established my aesthetic in its simplest form. The color is an extra layer of complexity on top of the dimensional forms.

8. Is there an underlying message or narrative that you're pushing by adding seemingly never ending dimension to the extremely flat?

I'm interested in how we perceive, and how the natural world works. I would like to provoke thought. I want viewers to think about and question what they perceive, and how and why they perceive. Something as simple as lines, arranged in particular orders based on organic processes, manage to emerge into more complex forms and shapes. One of the reasons we perceive things like that is because we evolved to expect light to come from above, and shadows to show below. When we see lines far apart next to lines close together forming a shape, we automatically interpret what it means. As we look at things, we try to make sense of them.. our brains generate what we expect to see based on the information given to us. Things like this fascinate me.

This is where I intertwine the general fields of art and science. Regarding creativity, the more I understand how the world works, the more my imagination is empowered and set free. In the field of art, I get a lot of pushback on this idea. I think most people think of it the other way around: that for creativity, imagination supersedes the embracement of reality. I think treating art and science as though they are in some sort of opposition or mutually exclusive is a false dichotomy.

9. What's next for your medium or work? Do you have any exciting new methods or styles that you're going to try and push the boundaries of your work with or do you plan to keep driving and perfecting your current styles?

I have been dabbling more in color, and will probably continue to do so. Maybe also adding other variables in the line work. For now I do plan to keep perfecting my current styles. It seems to be a good method for discovering nuances little by little, which gives me a good understanding of what I'm doing. I'm not sure how soon, but I do want to do more in the digital realm, whether it be VR, animation, or coding in some way.

10. Finally, plug yourself! Any exciting new projects or shows? Where can people find you? Anything and everything you can promote, go right ahead!

Sure! I just finished an installation at the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, California. That will be up until Jan 18th, and there will be a closing reception and artist talk on Jan 17th. I will also have an installation up at Sentosa Island Lights in Singapore, Nov 16 - Dec 31. Aside from that, people can keep track of what I'm doing via my Instagram: @darelcarey


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