New York

On Karawa

Sperone Westwater Fischer

After Lawson and Fischl, On Karawa looks dated, naively objective. His work also uses old strategies combining chance and seriality, as well as a Minimalist sense of environmental placement. Dates seemingly chosen at random—March 20, 1981, April 3, 1981, and May 26, 1981, in one series (three dates constitute a series)—are painted on canvas and arranged at regular intervals on the walls of an otherwise empty room, whose space is thus thrown into compelling relief. The pieces themselves—their color seems lovelier, more silken than usual for Karawa—become hypnotic despite being matter-of-fact (this is so even when we know that Karawa keeps “journals” of newspaper clippings of events occurring on the exhibited dates). A date seems to invite us to remember the day, which does nothing to undermine or complicate the date’s abstractness as a neutral sign and the work’s abstractness as a useless object. We would like the date to be the title of a historical text—to function dialectically—but it doesn’t rest comfortably in this discursive role; we really don’t get beyond its self-presentation. Its simplicity drifts toward complexity, but never arrives.

This ambiguity heightens the work’s appeal; it becomes more stimulating by being given an unclear conceptual focus. Thus, like all good conceptual art, it attempts to force the spectator to deconstruct his own consciousness of the art. But the ambiguity cannot be sustained, the work collapses into corpselike facticity. This is not a subterfuge, as it might be in Lawson or Fischl, but rather, unexpectedly, a display of artistic “presence.” Karawa’s art ends up making us esthetically happy. We are stuck with that antiseptic old eternal presence of art, making us feel good all over with admiration and absorption. The tension between the eternal and the temporal implicit in Karawa’s art of “broken” or implied series is discharged in the tensionless presence each work acquires the moment we experience it as disinterested art.

Karawa has too much trust, not enough resentment of art—which is what Lawson and Fischl have, and what continues to be needed. Such resentment was a major source of Modernism, which distrusted art’s “representation” of itself as well as all conventions of representation. On Karawa has too much good faith, for all his irony. (The assumption that irony is inherent to art is another way of keeping it pure, for it does not begin to touch on the idea of artistic fiction as a purge of social “representation,” a small lie to free us from the big lie.) We need more bad faith in art and more art that is in bad faith—that toys with our belief systems, our social and psychological as well as artistic expectations. The dissolution of civil society and individuality are of more import than the dissolution of art into a concept—unless the latter signals the former. As the waters of “real life” close over our heads, we need an art that preserves life, not one that lets us drown with our heads held high and a stiff intellectual lip.

Donald Kuspit