Nashville

Karen Seapker, The Sower, 2020, oil on canvas, 72 × 60".

Karen Seapker, The Sower, 2020, oil on canvas, 72 × 60".

Karen Seapker

Zeitgeist

On March 2, in her Nashville studio, Karen Seapker took stock of fourteen artworks, an ambitious series of quasi-abstract paintings completed over the course of the past year. The large-scale works were scheduled to be delivered to Zeitgeist the following day for the artist’s third solo exhibition at the gallery. But just before 1:00 AM, a devastating tornado tore through the city, killing dozens of residents and ripping through the roof of Seapker’s studio building. After the storm passed, the space was found to be structurally unsound and flooding, but the paintings were mostly unharmed (Seapker was among the neighborhood’s luckier tenants), so the canvases were carried out that morning. This tumultuous prelude to the opening of Seapker’s show, uncannily titled “Circuities,” underscored the precarity of existence, the very subject of her exhibition. In canvases swirling with gesture and high-chroma color, the artist embraced the powerfully cyclical nature of all things human, vegetal, and celestial while mining imagery from her experiences as a parent, gardener, and painter.

Various moons appear, chameleonlike, in nearly every piece on view. Seapker repurposes a banal metaphor for the menstrual cycle to both ground her works in the ever-changing physical world and lampoon essentialized conceptions of the “female experience” within it. These spheres sometimes stand in for otherworldly figures, most often maternal heroines pictured at various stages of life. In Pink (all works 2020), for example, we witness a birth: In front of a full moon, bookended by splayed legs, emerges a smaller one, a crowning baby’s head. Meanwhile, Running Mama depicts a comical balancing act: The figure furiously pumps her angular arms and fists while balancing a precious miniature globe at her feet. Similarly, in Outpost, a crouching woman—half flesh, half cloud—supports a sleeping child on her lap, her ready-to-pounce position incongruous with her peaceful, moonlit environs. Other canvases present lunar orbs as the central subjects in gradient-rich landscapes: In Gloaming, a harvest moon illuminates an ultramarine sky populated only by branches and fluttering leaves, completing a nostalgic picture of an environment potentially lost to future generations. In Opening, two planetary spheres intersect in a vertical Venn diagram, the overall composition suggesting some merger of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color (1963) and Lars von Trier’s dystopic Melancholia (2011).

Alongside the figure of the mother was that of the gardener, who plays another role at once extraordinary and routine. The parallel was most clear in the powerful painting The Sower, which depicts a bizarre, cartoonish character scattering seeds from an oversize hand; on her feet (she has three, as if moving so fast as to produce trails), she sports sensible Nike sneakers to support her life-starting endeavor. On a facing wall, The Gardener nodded to the opposite end of the biological progression: A profiled face looks downward while hands sift through roots and critters in bloodred dirt; one arm, with a MOM tattoo, presents a cliché that is also a reminder: Eram quod es; eris quod sum (I was what you are; you will be what I am).

While Seapker’s figures read as stock characters, they could simultaneously be seen as avatars of the artist herself. In a statement accompanying the show, she explains that the idea for this body of work came to her last spring while she was walking a circular path through her garden; the trail became a metaphor for the rhythms of her life. “Painting (like gardening, like parenting),” she writes, “requires the gentle balance between controlled action and attentive observation.” When “Circuities” opened just days after the tornado wreaked havoc (and less than a fortnight before galleries shut down in response to Covid-19), Seapker used the reception as an opportunity to raise funds in the art community for relief efforts. Participating in the event, I was reminded of Mary Oliver’s 2012 poem “The Gardener,” which asks, “Have I lived enough? / Have I loved enough? / Have I considered Right Action enough, have I / come to any conclusion?” Seapker provides no definitive answers, but she paints a world in which care is the immediate priority and rebirth—cultivated in the present—is one absolute in an otherwise uncertain future.