Los Angeles

Karen Carson

All jostle and rip, Karen Carson’s new collages seem lashed into shape by an inarticulate ferocity. Unlike her earlier fetishistic drawings of tortured beds, the current large-scale works are abstract. Yet they exhibit the same aggressive instinct for demolition that characterizes the drawings, and they are based on the same fierce premises: that form has vitality only when it is fragmented, assaulted, and flayed; that distraction of the eye of the beholder is a desirable goal; and that an artist’s job of work is in the end a binder’s craft, a gathering up and a welding together of the agitated shards that constitute the esthetic experience.

Carson’s procedure is itself a curious fusion of destruction and construction. She first prints large sheets of paper with lithographic ink, using several impressions to get varied, rather harsh, color effects. Since the motif reproduced is an allover, plywood-derived, faux-bois pattern, densely striated and pocked with knotholes, it brashly alludes to the wood-simulating swatches of wallpaper used by Braque and then Picasso in the earliest papiers collés. Carson’s technique, however, is collage, and she prepares her basic materials by ripping up these printed sheets into ragged, abruptly erratic shapes. (One imagines the artist’s zest in the execution of this particular process.) The torn forms, reassembled into shaggy-edged rectangles via rhoplex on a net fabric backing, constitute a violently hyperactive surface, a restless field that the artist exacerbates by applying bits of connecting tape helter-skelter everywhere, by accentuating overlap-pings with dark shadows, and by assertively linking broken planes with strong-arm charcoal strokes. Though the interstices between rips are occasionally filled by easy stretches of pastel lyricism (most notably in the prettiest work exhibited—Broken Mesas), the emphasis is on angular force against jagged obstacle, on thrust versus counter thrust, on precipitous movement and repetitive expressionist gesture.

Carson’s distraught work reminds one that if collage is often, nowadays, made servant to a domesticated or intimate vision, it was once denounced (by Maurice Raynal, for example) as a subversive trick, and, even more important, that it was first employed by its Cubist inventors as a major weapon in their campaign to “assassinate” the traditional work of art—as a means, that is, of attacking both the idea of the oil painting as a gracious object and the notion that the work of art embodies an ideal beauty. Carson’s approach to the medium, though not especially radical in its look (her wall pieces are vaguely reminiscent in composition of late-’40s de Kooning or Marca-Relli a few years later), nevertheless stems from that earlier assassinating impulse. Her craggy bravado consequently has a certain uningratiating strength. It also, unfortunately, suffers from the weakness of excess, that “monotony of forcefulness” which Eliot noted in Seneca.

Nancy Marmer