fig. 54: Breathe
Silkscreen, 38"x32"
© Karen Carson, 1994

Completeness Shattered

To say that art-making is like breathing can be comforting, especially to those of us who believe that art is necessary to human survival. At the beginning of this essay, I stated that art is a vital "ritual medium" which can "rehabilitate the communal imagination" and "create wholeness" in this often "fragmented and disturbing" world.

The corollary to that statement is less comforting: "I believe our preconceptions must explode as we construct ourselves anew, creating our future out of the shards of this historical moment." Completeness must be shattered, in my view, as wholeness is not stasis; instead, the on-off of connection is the pulse that makes life hum.

And so this essay began with a question, posed as a pair of images: "It's All About the Apple" and "Sandwich" (figs. 1 and 2) were served up to start a dialog. Tradition, in the guise of art history and Judeo-Christian iconography, was counterposed to whitebread and lunchmeat, pop icons for a "New Age."

These images hover between historical notions of past and future. They orient differently, but are not quite opposed. One points towards "ancestry," one points "fast and forward," yet both seek personal truth without muting their ironic tones.

Maxine Olson states, "My images are taken from my Portuguese ancestry, art history, and those who have touched my life in some way." Karen Carson states, "I rarely make artist statements because they tie me to something that will become obsolete. Part of my love affair with the West is that here change and time are fast and forward."

Time can be furiously fast and forward - is it more so in the west? Can it outrun obsolescence? Can it liberate us from the past? Sure, Carson was referring to the view from her studio window, Lincoln Boulevard in Los Angeles, where cars, ideas, and fashions go speeding by. But I've noticed even the sunsets dim in one brilliant flash in the west. They don't linger like the eastern glow, so soft and so subdued.

It may be a myth, but this thinking is classic - and captivating. The west is a vast landscape of possibility, and we have made it so. "The Western sky is a huge negative space, a metaphor for the imagination," says Carson, continuing, "the landscape is filled with possibility, and I can think of nothing more energizing for an artist." What better place to "shatter" the present historical moment and "construct ourselves anew."

Carson has lived in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. In 1994, during a year-long residency at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, she made a series of vinyl banners called "Simple Lessons and Easy Pieces." Based on the look of Las Vegas casino signage, this series included the "Thank You" of Sandwich (fig. 1) and the "in-out" of Breathe (fig. 54). The intent of the banners, according to Ann Ayres (in her critically astute catalog essay "Butterflies are Free to Burn"), "is not to burlesque spiritual homilies or point out the ambiguity of truisms. Rather, the incongruity of the flashy, hard-sell, market-directed publicity is in the service of traditional but always hard-won spiritual intelligence." (See catalog Karen Carson, But Enough About Me.)

Breathe (fig. 54) suggests that equilibrium can be dynamic. It depicts a world in balance, but one that is turned inside-out and upside-down. The garish image is oppositional in every way - in color, form, word, and implication. Both comic and serious, irritating and mesmerizing, it flashes its two-step message in alternating (electric) current. A combination slot machine and Buddhist prayer rug, Breathe perfects imperfection. It says that we do have a chance, and that our values, if corrupted, are not entirely bankrupt. Breathe keeps us reaching and dancing; it asks us to look behind surface slogans, to question our consumerism, and to resist easy ideals that would pretend to make us whole.

fig. 55: Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling
Acrylic, wood, and plexiglass mirrors on wood panel, 64.25x98"
© Karen Carson, 1989

Carson's early art (from the 1970s to mid-80s) was mostly modernist; it used perspectival form and color to create the dual push-pull that resonates throughout her work. But in 1988 Carson "upped the ante," according to Ann Ayres, by introducing shards of plexiglass mirrors. Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling, completed the following year, repeats this mirror motif. The glass fragments reflect glimpses of light and image within frame upon dizzying frame. A single sunburst explodes like a supernova, and the effect would be cartoonish were it not for its monumental scale. The mirror shards, however, are what thoroughly disrupt our relationship to this work. Ayres writes:

The mirror shards [. . .] assert the reality of the surface, yet they also reflect the world and insert little "pictures" into the illusion of space behind the surface [. . .]. By letting glimpses of the real world break indiscriminately into the painting, Carson imperiled her careful constructions of perspective illusion and the possibility of disinterested contemplation. In the presence of these shards, one senses an artist who was more and more willing to look at herself and to be publicly seen in a "shattered completeness."

fig. 56: Butterflies Are Free To Burn
Acrylic, wood, plexiglass mirrors, decals,
and metal on wood panel, 79x109x6.25"
© Karen Carson, 1989

fig. 57: Recoil and Advance
Acrylic, wood, plexiglass mirrors,
and found clock on wood panel, 97.25x156x5"

© Karen Carson, 1990-91

By 1989, Carson was willing to shatter both the forms on her canvas and her culturally constructed "feminized" self-image. Her 1989-91 paintings expand dimensionally and "exploit an in-your-face 'feminized' and 'spiritual' iconography of kitschy applied design and stereotypical decorative motifs that have immense psychological potency." Butterflies Are Free To Burn (fig. 56) makes the transition. The "scandalous butterfly" perched on the edge of the painting's frame breaks the confines of the rectangle and breaks from Carson's previously abstract visual imagery. As the butterfly "faces" its possible futures, Carson pioneers what Ayres calls a "'bad girl' outrageousness" combined with a "determination to fold this feminist stance into a message of spiritual necessity."

Recoil and Advance (fig. 57) goes a step further. The butterflies are nested into each other, and Carson revisits "central core" vaginal imagery similar to that of 1970s Judy Chicago. This postmodern pastiche of paisley patterns, sunburst clocks and sexualized butterflies runs from humorous to heroic. The internal shapes converge and then emerge, as they "metamorphose" from pupae to mature, "heroic butterfly."

fig. 58: Phoenix and the Ovaries
Acrylic, plexiglass mirrors, found convex mirror and
found clock on wood panel, 109x135x42.5"
© Karen Carson, 1991

Phoenix and the Ovaries is a jubilant painting that celebrates female sexuality with visual puns, metaphysical symbols, and anatomical references to the womb, ovaries, birth canal, and clitoris. Full of movement and exuberant vitality, the fiery ovaries seem about to rise with the double-Phoenix. The canvas itself is a shape-shifter, at once bird, kite, diamond, and fan. The diamond (marriage symbol?) and fan (a vanitas emblem of mortality and self-knowledge) surround the central sunburst mirror, in which the viewer can recognize herself.

By 1991, Carson had completed a number of such "eccentric" shaped canvases. Their "framing edges," says Ayres, "form huge decorative cutouts - commanding ornaments that duplicate an internal imagery pointing to the masks and disguises (revered and feared) of a constructed femininity." The imagery in these works becomes "feverish - sunbursts, flowers, jewels, doves, flames, hearts, targets, stars, musical notes, butterflies, spiders, eyes, snakes, dragons, skulls, clowns, putti, and pantheons of fallen angels and risen devils gamboling and sorrowing over our decaying times."

fig. 59: It's a Small World
Detail from Rosamund Felson Gallery installation
Cel vinyl on found globe
© Karen Carson, 1992

I chose Karen Carson to conclude this essay because her passionate acknowledgment of "our decaying times" so moved me. In It's a Small World, she installs a group of "found" globes, the kind children study in school, in the pristine gallery space. But the world's "hot spots" are covered with winged devils and skulls spewing fire. Suddenly, you are transported to K-mart and the announcer calls, "Attention All Shoppers, the sale begins in five minutes." I wonder when the sale is going to end?

fig. 60: It's a Small World
Installation at Rosamund Felsen Gallery
Cel vinyl on found globes and four wall drawings, 40x26 ft.
© Karen Carson, 1992

Ann Ayres describes this installation as "a solar system of nineteen 'found' world globes that she [Carson] repainted and hung at different heights from the ceiling." Ayres continues:

Each globe describes a terrifying spectacle of contemporary economic, military, or industrial excess and proclaims the consequences for ecological disaster. Painted on the walls surrounding the "small worlds" are heroic male and female angels who cavort cheerfully and salaciously to unheard celestial rhythms. The globes are saved from didacticism by their wild and comic intensity and Carson's exuberant paint handling. An ominous future seems sadly fated, an all-too-human hubris when considered from the aspect of eternity. The earth as the lotus land of purity is seen as corrupted and raped - but the message of the Kama Sutra plays on.

fig. 61: I Am A Soul
Appliqué on vinyl, 119x70.25"
© Karen Carson, 1994

From jouissance "on the brink" to I Am A Soul and its (temporary) restoration of balance, Karen Carson's work allows us to reexamine our world and our changing place within it. As we move through cycles of shattering and reconstruction, no matter how vast our western imaginary landscape, we won't ever be able to fast forward into the actual future. So the next time you are stuck in rush-hour traffic, try reading I Am A Soul out loud, as if it were imprinted on a vanity license plate belonging to the car ahead of you . . . you may hear Carson whispering, "SO U Will."

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All images © the artists.
All text © Susan Ressler
except for quotations from Ann Ayres, "Butterflies Are Free to Burn," in
Karen Carson, But Enough About Me, Santa Monica Museum of Art, 1996.