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May 1 - 29, 2004 at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica

by Marlena Donohue

"Fire 1", 2004, acrylic on silk.

"Fire 2", 2004, acrylic on silk.

"Fire 3", 2004, acrylic on silk.

"Fire 4", 2004, acrylic on silk.
With a new group of very painterly landscapes that--lyrically as Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Parliament--depict woods ablaze in fire and natural disaster, Karen Carson (for now, at least) breaches her apparent covenant with the wry post modern syntax we expect from her.

Her recent exhibitions have also been focused on landscape, but the out of bounds media employed previously--waterfalls in light boxes appropriated from beer ads, nature scenes depicted on mini-mallish vinyl banners--kept the notion of landscape, with all of its super corny and super sublime baggage, at a cool conceptual remove.

In this show, you will see gestural, frothy landscapes painted on unforgiving stretched silk; every accident counts and so each stroke, as in calligraphy, must tell. The silk surface and silk dyes (mixed with paint) in tangerines and mauves allow light to lushly pass through in the most interesting ways. Incandescent oranges against sooty browns reach back past Carson’s overt knack for conceptual puzzles that began at UCLA with minimal zippered shapes to resuscitate her earlier Ab Ex training. These large single- and multi-panel landscapes appear to be unapologetic Romantic musings on apocalyptic nature, a lapse, a return to gesture and sheer beauty. . .but not really.

With Carson there is always that strong caveat: but not really.

However beautiful, painterly, even revivalist these works may seem at first, you will find this “but not really” factor, best described as the way every visual inquiry and imagistic proposition--whether poetic (Carson’s salacious angels overseeing a disintegrating cosmos in her Otis installation), or comedic (her lush waterfalls mounted as common 3-d beer ads)--purports a thesis but never a synthesis. Done without irony or pretence, it is this multivalent non-closure that ultimately makes these landscapes a product purely of their day.

Lush grids of leafless trees are broken by smoky grays, reds and oranges; the translucence of the surfaces (which will be hung under low light) makes areas look as if they are literally smoldering; multiple perspectives draw you actively in and out. These are tactics that meld Ma Yuan scrolls, Ucello, Baroque ceilings, and the suspended disbelief/hyperbole of the silver screen. Like I said, neo-Romantic painterly landscapes. . .but not really.

And just as you are seduced by sheer mark making, you notice that the smoke coalesces into two heraldic, barely visible fire-breathing dragons--comical, heroic, cartoony and mythical. You feel for a minute that you are confronting Caspar David Friedrich's Nordic temperament contemplating brutal beauty, then the tightly painted borders around the scenes in decorative swirls and flame like lips flatten the perspective, undermine the precious, remind you where you are and just plain make you smile. It is dramatic and serious, and nothing quite so serious at all. When I visited her studio, Carson was considering stuffed black crows hovering about the edges and I was utterly shocked to find this made perfect sense--kitsch into poetry, poetry back into kitsch.

Carson has said that her work draws ultimately on her life experience; she says that for some reason she began making images of nature ablaze in the early 2000’s, shown in New York. Shortly after she began these works, she experienced first hand the raw might of a conflagration in her Montana home as neighbors were burned out and evacuated all around her. Then she came home to L.A. for the winter only to have Bakersfield go up in flames here. “Maybe it was some sense of looming disaster, but I was drawn to how fire cannot help but be dramatic, dangerous and fascinating all at once. And there it was all around me. . .”

Carson is surprisingly unpretentious, yet astute as we’d expect from the maker of work that has subtly, wryly unpeeled almost every modernist credo and hegemonic authority. Maker and oeuvre (a stuffy word for work so rompingly fresh in its ability to be and not be serious at once) are anti pedantic; both share an almost reflexive unforced knack for deconstructing via seamless, eccentric minor chords whose notes abut, blend but never resolve such odd bedfellows as Zen koans and fast food (Breathe In and Out, inspired simultaneously by Carson’s study of Zen and her equal immersion in vernacular signage and burger hot spots). Carson can reference the cosmos, trysting angels, Vegas casinos and vaginas, yet miraculously pop us out the other end of her visual thought process with a variety of insights on language, repetition, obsession, the exhilaration of Pop culture, the need to slow it down, and the tenacity of faith--in nature, technology, Coors--you get to choose.

The fact that her work has lucidly intersected again and again (even here in these seemingly revivalist works) with the most current conceptual theories--literality, installation, appropriation, simulacra, language--is almost collateral. Her knack for deconstructing our world and its mediators comes--of her own admission--from giving herself the permission to ruminate visually, a creative impulse that predates semiotics by a few millennia. Carson’s Law: art is the least boring way to think about things visually. Right now she has light, and fire, drama and beauty on her mind; tomorrow she will allow herself a new course of thought. Her sensitivity, the sharpness of her instincts as she takes in her world--a post-feminist, socially constructed, sampled and resampled, market driven, apocalyptic, spiritually searching, 2004 world--renders these (and all her work) quintessentially post modern, but by virtue of her acute radar than due to any willful desire to make work from textual dogma. This brings concept close to the bone and is to her credit.