Los Angeles

Karen Carson

It’s heartening when artists successfully expand their vocabularies, and the 11 pieces in this exhibition, entitled “Innocence Betrayed,” show that Karen Carson has done just that. Employing inflamed imagery, Carson has zeroed in on a sense of ironic anger more acutely than ever before. Each piece is a composite image made up of smaller pictures, arranged in a sort of dark insignia that suggests coloring book nightmares. Rendered in india ink, marker, charcoal, and pencil, with collaged elements, the works are framed in gothic, funereal wooden frames. Carson covers each image with a poison-green sheet of Plexiglas, submerging them in a murky pond of color that suggests sickness, jealousy, pollution, and decay. Paradoxically, green can also be linked colloquially to naiveté or gullibility, as in the term “greenhorn.” Though innocent, a greenhorn is also a figure of fun, a dupe. Carson makes use of both the sinister and the innocent implications of her sheets of green, and the troubled images underneath. She milks the paradoxical implications of all her visual choices.

The works in the show are all approximately the same size and all are tightly related on a visual and thematic level. Birds of prey, gun-toting clowns, coiled reptiles, hypnotic spiral patterns, bombs, tanks, and grinning skulls boil up, looking like morbid tattoos. Arranged in Rorschach blot-like configurations along with cute, greeting-card babies, wreaths, bunnies, worried teddy bears, toys, kitty-cats, and butterflies, all this doom and gloom is simultaneously mock and fiercely sincere. In Innocence 2, for example, adorable cows and pigs are shown with chops, steaks, and hamburgers that sport faces, and the pickle slices that form their eyes have toothpicks stabbed through them. In Innocence 8, a catalogue of dashed female fantasies, Kewpie dolls, dollhouses, flowers, and a tiny knight on a white horse give way to a bone-wielding demon, snakes, stabbed hearts, and spider webs. Everywhere, fake cheer meets ever-present seething malevolence.

These works present a crumpled time line—freely mixing goody-goody images foisted upon us in childhood with sobering images from newspapers or pictures lifted off bikers’ jackets. Carson’s mandalas seem to imply some symbiotic, perhaps even causal link between innocence and darkness: Does the lamb invite slaughter? Does the round-eyed baby incite the hairy hand to overturn its cradle? And though her shield-shaped image conglomerations are symmetrical, the symmetry doesn’t seem to imply balance or harmony. Quite the opposite, in fact, for these images are emblems of chaos.

In Carson’s images viewers get a catalogue of stylized visual bits, which represent repressed fears side by side with the saccharine façades that get pasted over them as one is socialized. In Carson’s dystopia, these little pictures rise like the smoke from a pyre where the platitudes of childhood burn away. From the cloud of symbols—clichés of innocence, terror, sweetness, and evil—that issues from this Pandora’s box, Carson distills a series of bizarre coats of arms ready to be borne as standards into a future battle against hypocrisy.

Amy Gerstler