New York

Karen Sylvester

Karen Sylvester’s new paintings (all Untitled, 1989) are made by combining photoemulsions with oil on canvas. The images themselves are gathered from a vast photo archive at the New York Public Library, then collaged together and painted in acidic, poisonous colors. All of these images have a generically dated, media-derived look: one might be a still from an unknown Hitchcock film, another a page out of a forgotten 19th century fashion catalogue. Taking her raw material from the now inexhaustible but seemingly irrelevant image bank of modern culture, Sylvester perverts the images, violently recontextualizing them in her paintings and lending them a provisional, phantasmal life. The overall impression is of history denuded of all claim to significance or heuristic power.

By yoking together painting and photography, Sylvester alters our standard, ossified perception of both mediums. She denatures the images by contrasting the vivid illusionism of photoemulsion with the blunt, abbreviated graphism of handpainted outlines and shadows. The various “realisms” staked out by painting and photography, their conflicting means for providing an understanding of the world, are evacuated by the artist’s irradiated sci-fi expressionism. Yet Sylvester avoids any connotations of the supposed heightened emotiveness conveyed by painterly gesture. The sensuous qualities of painting are flatly denied, and gesture is reduced to the cold, unmodulated outlines of oil paint. Whatever “feeling” Sylvester’s paintings have is generated out of the nasty collision of photographic illusion—itself a truncated, dematerialized phantasm— and the dull opacity of painted delineations.

Sylvester’s work suggests the horror of that nameless history that is adumbrated, but not described, in innumerable forgotten photographs. This is the horror of what we once might have been, as described by Georges Bataille in his essay “Human Face”: “Owing to our presumably insufficient data, we can cite but a single era within which the human form stands out as a senile mockery of everything intense and large conceived by man. The mere sight (in photography) of our predecessors in the occupation of this country now produces, for varying reasons, a burst of loud and raucous laughter; that sight, however, is nonetheless hideous.” Sylvester’s recent work is also a meditation on the human face, conjoining antique beauty with quotidian ugliness, or the supposed normalcy of social composure with the maniacal glee of the insane. In one especially striking piece, a blandly contemporary woman stares out at the spectator in an expression of fear or shock; her own distress is silently echoed by the heads of several seemingly identical, impassively beautiful Gibson girls. The subject’s anxious surprise mirrors the viewer’s own.

David Rimanelli