Los Angeles

Karen Carson

Rosamund Felson Gallery

At least part of the impact of Karen Carson’s new paintings is attributable to their unfamiliarity. In her elliptical oil on canvas pieces and the smaller water-based paintings on paper Carson establishes a series of vortices—configurations of stacked, jagged, overlapping planes of variously colored arcs, ziggurats, L-shapes, triangles, and odd geometric fragments. These paintings are radically different both from her previous work (especially the starkly rendered, illusionistic drawings of objects for which she is best known) and from that of any other abstract painter in town. In the turn away from her past and from her milieu Carson seems to have chosen art history, or more particularly Cubism, as an alternative.

Carson works with a reduced palette; these are predominantly blue and gray paintings. The colors recall the subdued, “functional” ones used until the 1960s for the interiors of public buildings. Here, as there, drabness is used to connote seriousness. In Carson’s work the effect is distinctly ascetic. For all its obvious brushwork, the paint appears to have been applied with a certain impassivity, even restraint. The more tentatively composed pieces, those with exposed underpainting, are the least successful; the kind of spatial complication Carson seeks demands conviction.

Although distinguished by their tertiary coloring and unusual shapes, the paintings are most noteworthy for their collapsible, spiraling spaces. Carson enriches what otherwise could be lifeless academic paintings by her refusal to conform to a rectilinear, gridded internal structure. Imposing an inflexible grid atop the great possibilities ellipses offer has been the primary fault of most other painters who have chosen to work with them, Bolotowsky most prominently. Indeed, when Carson works on the square or rectangular format of drawing paper those relatively inert shapes stabilize and weaken her imagery. The motions alluded to in a number of the works’ titles, floating, spinning, rolling, exist most forcefully in the shaped canvases.

Carson substitutes a swirling, vertiginous overview for the Cubists’ planar simultaneity, and makes no attempt to integrate the fragments she employs. The paintings are not so much composed as they are arrested in time. The organizing force in them varies, sometimes centrifugal (Floating Around), sometimes centripetal (Blue Roll). In both instances we are confronted with intense, almost painful efforts at inventing credible abstract painting. Carson’s “Cubism” is a stylistic device very much akin to the vogue for Constructivism afoot in New York. Like her peers there she seems determined to avoid the etiolated sensibility of third-generation Minimalism as well as the current infatuation with grafting Guston’s images onto Still’s surfaces. Whether, with her anomalous geometry, she can succeed is uncertain. These early signs, though, are hopeful.

Richard Armstrong