The Embedded Window: Laura Karetzky in conversation with Stephen Savage
Laura Karetzky: Embedded continues at Lora Schlesinger Gallery, Santa Monica, through July 15. She discusses her work and its background with critic and artist Stephen Savage
It is a truism that any painting worthy of our attention is going to be stronger in the flesh than on a small electronic screen. But to the extent that much of Laura Karetzky’s current work – including the body of work on view at Lora Schlesinger Gallery, Santa Monica, through July 15 – entails representations of the small electronic screen, it seems both appropriate and ironic to look at her work online.
Take the piece on the Schlesinger homepage, for instance, Embedded MeandM (2017) (M being the artist’s partner). In oil on wood at twenty by sixteen inches, it is painted in a muted color range and a carefully modulated hand. Framed so that Karetzky’s eye and her husband’s look out at us together, the impact is both subtle and strong. She has the technical ability to produce a striking figurative likeness, the intellectual ability to frame something that is complex and slightly unsettling, and the emotional ability to convey warmth instead of anomie ordisjunction merely for its own sake.
Embedded Met Breuer (2017) takes this a step further. From Thomas Struth we have the now iconic photographs of museumgoers, arrayed in varying stages of presentness, confronting “art.” But consider the ontology of the following, as you read this article while looking at her images on your chosen device:
- You’re reading my words
- About an image on the screen
- Depicting a work in oil paint, on wood
- Which depicts within it a young woman
- Looking at her iphone
- And within that, the image of a man, in front of her, being photographed on her iphone
- And both in the iphone and (more clearly) in front of her…
- … he’s looking down at his phone
- As he walks along, by the window, at Met Breuer.
Karetzky’s superb piece captures so much of our “post-postmodern” moment. How do we see? How do we experience things? What’s the relationship between immediacy and disintermediation?
On the eve of her Californian show, I caught up with the artist in her DUMBO studio.
A good place to start is her influences: “Of course there is Morandi and Balthus who both hold a very prominent part of my conscious mind, for their handling of paint, color, and their private personal searches. There is Neo Rauch, George de la Tour, Goya, de Chirico, Dalí, Degas, Andrew Wyeth, Hopper, Currin for his endorsement to academic training, Fischl, Lucian Freud. Kerry James Marshall for the pure honesty of his story telling. Gerhard Richter.”
That’s quite a list, and shows how fascinating the notion of influence. I can see so much more of Morandi and of Balthus in her work than Dalí, for instance. She went on,
“Sam Gilliam was a senior critic while I was an undergrad at Carnegie-Mellon. [She would go on to study at RISD, SVA, the New York Studio School and the New York Academy.] He dismissed my work. Being at a place, and a time, where figuration was truly frowned upon forced me to really challenge my instincts. The critiques there were brutal even for the abstractionists, and being questioned so relentlessly, made me search myself enough to identify that I am inherently a storyteller, a narrative artist,” she said. And – very gently – “so for that reason Sam Gilliam had perhaps the deepest and most lasting influence on me—I say this with a smile, as I am truly thankful to him for the conviction and early awareness it gave me.”
I ask her about contemporaries: “I‘m not sure which contemporaries are currently influencing me. There are many that I admire and whose work I love; but influence? I suppose hindsight will make that more clear. I love Kyle Staver’s work and her relief sculptures are beautiful—I’m starting to use porcelain to make relief embedded images. I love Nicole Eisenman’s 2014 “Selfie” and also when she depicts the artist in her work.”
Later I ask her how her work had evolved over time, and one of the people she references was the writer, James Salter: “My work has been a visual diary for many years, so the subject matter evolves in real time. I think of writers whose short stories feel familiar to mine (Salter, John Cheever), as those reflect a familiar moment presented as a glimpse at (snippet of) a fuller narrative.”
We don’t think enough about the influence of writing upon the visual, and the visual upon writing. James Salter is, in a sense, an artist’s writer – using language tautly, summoning up a scene, signaling emotions and attractions sometimes directly and sometimes very obliquely – and one sees immediately this quality in Karetzky’s work: “I tend to choose an idea or a picture because there may have been a situation I didn’t fully digest or understand, and the result I hope is to reconcile it somehow. The construct reflects those times when I feel outside of myself, like a voyeur to my own experience: I am the audience, experiencing it as a stranger, just as you are.”
This begs the question as to how did images of iPhones started to appear in her work? As well as painting iPhone imagery in her oils, Karetzky is also producing video art, with three video pieces in her Santa Monica show.
“This most recent work involving technology naturally evolved out of my struggle to trust the computer interface. It wasn’t a premeditated decision to paint this, it just happened. And I then became excited by the possibilities I identified in it. I have always been deeply affected by relationships, their fleeting and fluctuating nature and our attempt to nurture and maintain them. My inquiry addresses this on many levels. however, my new work looks different and has become more simplified and iconic, because the limitation of the interface defines our communications that way.”
So, how does she go about making her work?
“In order to re-humanize the experience,” she said, “I began to ‘draw’ with my paint, building up layers indirectly over time and more transparently than I previously had. Because these images start as pixilated screen shot ‘stills’ from the computer, I want to involve the human hand by painting in a way that exposes the processes of making them. I have also limited my color palette to near monotone in many cases, in such a way that the separate embedded images are in dialog with each other on a formal level. Eliminating most of the color allows the two images to attempt to sit on the same picture plane: two paintings in one painting at the same time. They are embedded diptychs.
“It’s reassuring to me that I find recurring themes in my work over the years. I made a painting in 2008 of a man obscured by the shadow of an empty doorway in the then shell of the Tobacco Warehouse in Dumbo, which I titled ‘…and Carry a Big Twig.’ At that time I remember remarking how it felt like each window frame was its own painting within the painting. I paint what I know and find that I have often depicted other artworks in my paintings over the years. Some of the Embedded series have paintings in them (Balthus, Jürgen Wolf, Jan Yoors) or just distill my own paintings within the painting.”
I want to know more about her process, how images come about.
“My work starts from real exchanges captured on my iPhone. Deciding which images to pursue can be very illusive, as I’m not always sure how to remain a stranger once I’ve poured hours into considering it. As soon as I figure on an image, I go immediately into laying it down with oil paint—the composing part is completely intuitive: a feeling of weight and balance is something I follow instinctively. The process of creation fluctuates from fast to slow. One thing I am interested in is the accumulation of mark making and the sense of passing time one picks up from that. I am looking for a convergence of brushstrokes and patterning within an apparently controlled environment. I change my brushes from small to large to small, searching for detail and movement, and I look for a sense of illumination by pushing the dynamic of light and dark a little further each day. I am trying to address each image of the embedded diptych differently (light, color, brush, gesture) and yet at the same time to make evident their attempt at communication, connection and interaction.”
Some of these comments really help me to distinguish stronger pieces in the show from less strong ones : Embedded I Just Found A Pin (2014-16) and Embedded Paused (2015-16) are full renderings of what we clearly see is an iPhone screen. There is power in the slowness of an representation of this most ubiquitous part of our lives in oil paint and yet there is also something totally blunt about it. By contrast, works like Embedded MeandM, Embedded Rainbow (2016) and Embedded Caracas (2017) each carry a subtlety that slows down our reading of the piece. Each of them is, indeed, “an attempt at communication, connection and interaction.”
While I’m immediately drawn to Karetzky’s paintings, I watch her video installation feeling a sense of equivocation. How did this work arise?
“I find it so exciting, maybe even necessary, to explore a new medium or subject matter as the thrill of discovery and surprise allows me to reflect on what I am doing with new questions. Part of the adventure in painting for me exists in trying to make something that is tangible and that resonates on the canvas, something we can affirm and communicate with, out of unstructured, amorphous blobs of color. Working with video is an inverse process: starting with footage of something very tangible and real, I find myself looking for the metaphorical links, the way light moves the way images relate to each other formally, other honed down or abstract connections, a new story.
“My most recent paintings are an evolution of my video work as it became clear that the crux is in the embedded window, which serves as a portal for information transference. In many ways I now see the paintings as found collages. Just as my videos collage one image into another, I can see our experience of relationships as one’s life collaged into another.”
In an art world that is frothy and churning, the sensibility of Karetzky’s paintings helps build a bridge from the old to the new. It is almost exactly a hundred years since Walter Lipmann, the great American journalist, wrote, in his book “Drift and Mastery,” “We have changed the world more quickly than we know how to change ourselves.” His words were both true and prescient, and they accompanied the beginnings of a century of death and destruction. Laura Karetzky provides a reminder that, while technology gallops on, human nature changes glacially, if at all. In capturing both aspects of our lives she encourages us all to slow down, just a little.