Project Series 25: Karen Carson
Karen Carson creates paintings and drawings that mine the conceptual and emotional terrain of popular culture. It is territory she has explored for over three decades. For Carson, style has always been at the service of the ideas she is exploring and her work encompasses a wide range of media, including process-oriented “zipper” pieces of the early 1970s; abstract cubist-derived investigations of painterly space in the 1980s; large-scale Las Vegas-inspired vinyl banners of the 1990s; and gestural and graphic depictions of landscapes and fires. Carson transmutes popular culture and art historical references through dynamic graphics, vibrant colors, and poetic texts, into personal, idiosyncratic, statements.
“Hallmark meets Harley-Davidson,” is the way Carson summarized a body of work in a 2001 article by Bernard Cooper for Los Angeles Magazine. Cooper described the 1990s work as “a collision of emotional extremes” in which she deftly combines kitsch iconography—chipmunks, dragons, candy canes, flowers, skull and crossbones. During a visiting artist residency in Las Vegas, Carson determined to make art that could “penetrate the psyche in an instant” and began to incorporate advertising slogans and techniques. The resulting painted vinyl banners conflated her interests in advertising with text, material, and emotionally charged content.
In 1999 Carson began to live in Montana for half of every year and her work integrated that experience. She painted highly stylized images of nature—waterfalls, deserts, mountains—on banners and on light boxes. In this work, Carson tackled the representation of “nature” as a manifestation of the sublime seen by a fast-paced, technological, consumerist culture.
In the work on view here, Carson depicts the emotional and elemental effects of forest fires. The paintings and light boxes stem from a year in which wildfires ravaged the West and came within twenty miles of Carson’s Montana home. In the firestorms, the power of nature became perilously real, as it revealed itself to be even more transcendent and primal. The fire paintings, executed on transparent silk in fabric dyes and acrylic and metallic washes and on layered, transparent Plexiglas light boxes, are correspondingly more personal and mythical than the earlier landscapes. They continue the trajectory of her prior work in their focus on conceptual issues of painting, psychological content, and forces in popular culture. Carson presents the fire paintings in an installation that alludes to 19th-century Victorian theatricalism, a strategy that heightens the kitsch factor as it references the Romantic landscape tradition. By including references to popular culture and the canon of art history, she extends the discourse of post-modernism, energizing it with simultaneously profound and playful content.
Karen Carson’s exhibition is the twenty-fifth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
By Kristina Newhouse
As anyone who has grown up in a small town knows, the phrase “that’s different” has very specific and normative connotations. When uttered, it signifies an absence of understanding and, what is more, disinterest on the part of the interlocutor. Cloaked in false politeness, its usage provides a tart rebuke against any attempt to expand boundaries that local folks would just as soon not have budged. Indeed, “that’s different” quite succinctly and ably re-inscribes the line that separates inside from out. Invariably, it is an end to conversation, never the beginning.
Smart girls from small towns learn early on to keep some part of who they are under their hats, if they wish to spare themselves the myriad, mostly petty indignities that result from being labeled as different. Sometimes it is just safer to assume a camouflage of uncomplicated niceness and never to let on to the single thought that constantly threatens to surface; namely, they cannot wait to get the hell out, because the endemic conventions of country living may very well suffocate them if they don’t.
Karen Carson was lucky to be raised in the college town of Corvallis, Oregon. Although it may be difficult for city dwellers to fathom, communities like Corvallis are cultural havens in comparison to the rural townships and villages scattered across the Western prairies and into the mountains. Because so many people have come to them from somewhere else, allowances are made for difference and the more damaging of parochial values can be fended off or occasionally even ignored. College towns are often the first stop for young women who envision bigger things for their lives.
Carson outgrew Corvallis soon enough. She learned to make art and pushed on, her talent taking her first to Eugene and then to Los Angeles. She joined with many who fled the sticks to establish themselves in the infinitely more permissive environment of southern California in the late 1960s. Thereafter, Carson was associated with the cool and irreverent LA art scene.
During the late 1990s, Carson met and fell in love with arts benefactor and Idaho rancher, George Wanlass. After the two married, they decided to split their time between her world and his, spending part of the year in Los Angeles and the remainder in the Sweet Grass County region of southern Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. It was at this point that Carson turned to the landscape, a move that might have struck some in the arts community as perverse.
Landscape painting is the very stodgiest of artistic traditions and typically the first from which a contemporary artist must disassociate herself if she wishes to gain credibility from her jaded peers. However, Karen Carson’s imagery has always derived some of its strength from a tug of conflicting values. During her lengthy career, her artworks have been tempered by an abiding skepticism for the grandiloquence that girds any number of late 20th-century art concepts.
As someone who had spent most of her adulthood in the city, a return to life in the backcountry must have been overwhelming to Carson when she first arrived. In big cities, the landscape meekly acquiesces to architecture as well as to countless other visual and psychological distractions. So busy are its residents that urban nature can disappear entirely from view. Wilderness is much more insistent. Seeking artistic means to contend with the sublime that confronted her right in her own backyard, Carson may have ascertained that the citified 20th-century art movements were too pale and academic to suit her purposes. Accordingly, she reached further back in American art history for inspiration that was a bit more robust.
Carson may have found it in the 19th-century Luminist movement, a homegrown variation on Romanticism. For the Luminists, the landscape had been allowed to do the heavy lifting for weighty theological conceits. In their realist paintings, light was a mystic symbol of God’s immanence in nature. Introduced to Kant’s conception of the sublime as an experience arising from reason, the Luminists felt that his interpretation of open space as a manifestation of the infinite readily suited their purposes. The Kantian sublime, as channeled through the idealist philosophy of Emerson, radically changed their conceptions of the America landscape. These painters, who believed an individual’s immersion in nature amounted to a direct communion with God, merged a traditional understanding of the sublime with the transcendental preoccupation with notions of time and space. The terror-filled and majestic aspects of the sublime were displaced by a sensibility in which absolute solitude and stillness prevailed. In highly popular paintings, the Luminists strove to emulate the spiritual calm that resulted from the solitary contemplation of infinite and light-filled panoramas.
Karen Carson presented her first landscapes to a Los Angeles audience in 2001. Stripped-down and sketchily drafted in enamel on banner vinyl, Carson’s depictions of open vistas shared with their Luminist predecessors a certain taut compression of the horizon in deference to the sky. Some also appeared to have a shirttail kinship to the more theatrical Western panoramas made by the second generation Hudson River School painter, Albert Bierstadt. Exhibited at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, the banners were displayed salon-style, arranged in rooms with oriental parlor rugs and cheap plastic chairs. Although it had never been her intent to “rehash some 19th-century romance about the landscape,” Carson’s oblique invitation to participate in a more extended viewing of these works amounted to a kind of tent-revival transcendentalism. She distanced herself from this risky proposition by bracketing the scenic imagery of her paintings inside cartoonishly wind-whipped bunting and cartouches. By doing so, she made it clear to viewers that while was willing to quote her artistic predecessors, she certainly was not prepared to carry their standard.
In color and style, the landscapes shared similarities with a prior series of works on banner vinyl, in which Carson appropriated the baldly declarative look of the commercial signage of Las Vegas to create soul-searching epigrams. In these visually catchy works, spiritual truisms were commingled with advertising slogans. Simple and iconic, the pieces communicated their dark yet profoundly funny messages in a manner that was cheerfully straightforward.
The banner landscapes were similarly energized by an earnest, bold, and willfully vernacular life force. These paintings optimistically pandered to our vestigial yearning for the spiritual calm that 19th-century individuals derived from immersion in nature. They seemed to suggest that despite human encroachment, it might still be possible to find the requisite solitude. There was, however, something about her loose caricatures that also alluded to a different reality. Contemplation has long been trumped by entertainment in our culture. In an era of pre-packaging, why should we do all the work, if someone will do it for us? Regardless, we have become so accustomed to the pace of our fast-moving society that we may no longer be capable of sitting still long enough for the pay-off. In light of this, Carson’s depictions of the transcendental sublime were as sentimental as a clutch of vintage postcards.
A shift in Carson’s artistic treatment of the natural environment took place in the summer of 2003, after she became closely acquainted with a more brutish variation of the sublime. That July and August, an extended drought provided the perfect conditions for hellacious wildfires to ravage large swathes of Montana. Dry lightning (so-called because precipitation from thunderheads evaporates before it hits the ground) ignited forest tinder, while high winds and near 100-degree temperatures propelled the flames. For residents, these fires were a reminder that the more terrifying sublime is ever-present. Nature consumes (and doesn’t care what), a merciless reality that anyone who lives near wilderness can ill-afford to forget.
Fires, like hurricanes, are given names. In a season when it seemed everything was burning, the Hobble Fire had special meaning for Carson. The conflagration started at the Hobble Diamond Ranch, only twenty miles from her home. By the time the wildfire had run its course, some 40,000 acres along the Yellowstone River had burned. Many of those adversely affected were Carson’s neighbors and friends.
Her brush with the sublime caused Carson to reconsider her attitudes toward nature. The resulting canvasses were far more personal than those from the previous banner series. While the frightening events of the summer were still fresh in her mind, Carson tried to make the destruction more abstract, but soon discovered this approach was not “scary enough.” As a consequence, her preliminary studies came to possess a literal, almost documentary quality. Later works, generated during the winter months at her studio in Venice, benefited greatly from distance and the passage of time. In a process of distillation, her paintings became less about specific events and more about the elemental properties of fire.
In the latest paintings from the series, entitled “Putting Out Fires,” fire-breathing dragons materialize from the smoke swirling around the trunks of charred trees. Dragons have figured into Carson’s personal inventory of iconography since at least the early 1990s, when they showed up as bad-asses and spoilers in drawings and collages from her “Innocence” series. Although considered monstrous in western culture, dragons play different roles elsewhere. Embodied in the natural elements of thunder, wind, and fire, the feathered serpent of the pre-Columbian Americas was a creator of life and civilization but also its destroyer. In Asia, dragons have been more benevolent. In Ch’an scroll paintings of the Sung Dynasty, the dragon was frequently a cosmic manifestation symbolizing a momentary and elusive vision of truth. Given the context of her recent paintings, the reappearance of dragons suggests a return by Carson to an earlier interest in the intransigent cycles of life and death. Her acceptance of the confluence of destruction and hope, as well as regenerative nature and mortality, gave Carson latitude to make “something beautiful out of something horrible.”
Many of the paintings from the “Putting Out Fires” series were executed on stretched, transparent silk in fabric dyes and acrylic washes. Something about the pleasingly matte surface of silk aptly captured the hazy crisis of fire. At the same time, the soft and spreading brushstrokes suggested a distancing of the scene, as if depicting a dimming memory rather than a factual event.
Carson also created light boxes for the series, made from layered, transparent vinyl on Plexiglas. In stark contrast to the silk paintings, the luridly colored light boxes evoked both the grandeur of stained glass in darkened cathedrals and the tawdry temptations of the red-light district. Carson removed any visual impediments to enter the work, inviting viewers right into the midst of the hypnotic flames. She played it both ways in the profound and yet slightly salacious paintings of “Putting Out Fires.” With these pieces, Carson explored an exalted sublime, but also acknowledged the kinkier aspects of it as well.
There has always been something generous about Carson’s approach to art making. Her willingness to be mischievous as well as high-minded made these recent works accessible to an audience that might otherwise have felt out of the “know.” From a formal perspective, her virtuosic handling of color and gesture in the silk paintings would certainly hold appeal for viewers less savvy about the conceptual contortions of much contemporary art production.
In the small and tightly knit art scene, concept has been prioritized over technique for at least forty years. Of the artists who continue to paint, many do so because the canvas still somehow manages to provide an appropriate construct to foreground ideas. In the narrative of contemporary art, however, mark making has become undeniably passé.
With all the options available to artists today, Carson would be quick to acknowledge that painting is anachronistic. And beyond this, that her formally satisfying dalliances with the medium occasionally cross the line with colleagues who are more conceptually oriented. But beneath it all, she understands there are probably few things she would rather do than paint.
Karen Carson seems to be all right with her decision. Like many creative people who escape from the provinces, she may be a closet contrarian. Contrariness is far less costly than outright defiance as a strategy for self-acceptance and survival. When internalized, it sets up a cock-eyed plumb line from which to measure and build personal values. Contrarians learn to love being pitched askew, it mattering little what the prevailing attitudes around them are. The status quo, whatever it purports to represent, is never entirely to be trusted or taken seriously.
Kristina Newhouse is curator of contemporary arts at the Joslyn Fine Arts Gallery in Torrance, California. As an art writer, she has written for New Art Examiner, Sculpture, Art+Text, and Artnet.com. Currently she is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles-based arts magazine X-Tra.