Los Angeles

Karen Carson

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Karen Carson’s recent paintings are extremely literary. Although they look quite different from her earlier work, they almost seem to have been painted from written descriptions of their predecessors. It is as though Carson has named the key elements of the earlier works—the solid, hard-edged ring of the tondo, the fractured planes intersecting the circles, the sparse drawing and loose painting which define the planes and fill them in—and, by naming, has split them apart. Where these forms had been layered into a stacked, vertiginous space, here they are spread out across rectangular canvases both horizontal and vertical, one layer slid from beneath another. Where the previous work was cyclopean, the new paintings are all implied polyptychs; laid across the canvas, the circles are presented in stop action, pulled from the perfect round into ovals, ellipses, arcs, and finally into the lines of painted “frames,” as though by physical force. Carson’s new paintings narrate and explain across physical space the pictorial space and spin of their predecessors.

Coupled with the paintings’ new narrated space is a narrated content. Carson has exchanged the phenomenal for the exegetical, and the change is marked in the new titles. Where the titles of the earlier paintings came close to physical description, or to description of Carson’s desire for a physical response, the new pieces are titled with “clues to content”—clues to the imagery and its reading. And in the paintings themselves there seems to be a conscious attempt to turn the circle from a shape into a symbol, making obvious its function as metaphor and underlining its visual associations with the eye, the lens, and the landscape.

Most of the horizontal paintings are modified diptychs of two framed and tangential circles. At the center of one of the two circles in The Eye that Looks Down is an eye, or its shorthand notation—a heavy black dot topped with a thick horizontal slash. And the circle itself, like the circles in a number of paintings, resembles a cutaway of the eye; a lens is suggested by the, overlap of the circle’s gray border with the adjacent disc (a loud, broadly striped target) and a retina is formed by an abrupt orange streak on the brushy pink ground that fills the gray ring. The picture echoes its title: the eye, milky and translucent, confronts the painting, the opaque target.

In the vertical paintings circles again suggest eyes, which are repeated above and below each other as though in time. Here the horizontal bands that frame the overlapping circles don’t fall behind them or lie in tangent; instead they bisect them, serving as both horizons and film-frame lines. Carson heightens the first association by building a reduced and reflecting landscape around the line; the image above it is hard-edged, that below it is loose and spreading. And the lower landscape is framed in broad, echoing strokes, which push it deep into the painting and give the view through the eye the roundness of a fish-eye lens.

What prevented the earlier paintings from fulfilling their optical potential, from spinning, was their debt to Cubism. The gray-toned tondos were obscured and slowed down by the veneer and finish of history. The new paintings appear to be a reaction to their predecessors’ formal tightness and historical feel—an attempt to open up, and to allow both artist and viewer greater access. But the Cubism that foiled the earlier paintings is arguably a literary content; literariness, although of a very different kind, remains the problem here. Carson’s new work suffers most when it is an illustration of the earlier paintings, a schematic picture of space and transformation. She is most successful when her use of paint almost seems to make the support move; and it does so in most of the vertical paintings here, where the images are more compressed, the spaces more articulate, and the paintings more finished than in the horizontal pieces. But in the horizontal California Roll the circles don’t fit as firmly into their frames and are not as steadfastly symmetrical as in the other horizontal works. Just off center, two large slices of two targets are pulled together into a vertical ellipse, like a tall African shield; rather convincingly, they seem physically to pull the painting apart and up from the wall—instead of sliding themselves on top of it.

Susan C. Larsen