Laura Karetzky: The Action of Looking

Laura Karetzky, Embedded Brexit, 2019, oil on wood, 14” x 11”, photo: James Wade

Selfies in domestic interiors, mobile phones, and computer screens are ubiquitous throughout Laura Karetzky‘s paintings. Her fragmented figures inhabit familiar interior spaces such as a bedroom or a work space, resonating altogether the uncanny in our daily experiences in this digital age, where the boundaries between space, time, self and other become increasingly blurred and at times even disorienting. In
this interview with Art Spiel Laura Karetzky reflects on her figurative painting roots, her process, and her upcoming projects.

AS: Tell me a bit about what brought you to art.

Laura Karetzky: The action of looking through an artist’s lens is so inherent that I don’t ever remember a time before I thought of myself as one. Art allows us to enter unknown spaces and move around in them, try them out, get acquainted with them. It teaches us to become the other subject. I have always been apperceptive of the way we see ourselves; in how we fit into the world and experience it as it is reflecting back at us, so this was a natural place for me. The thing that has constantly drawn me to the studio has been a need to make sense of the startling, unexpected experiences of life. For me, it is a way of familiarizing the uncanny, describing the inexplicable. The themes in my work derive from specific real-life narratives and allow me to consider questions like: Who am I, and can I see myself in others? Is identity defining, or is it multidimensional?

AS: In your interview with Stephen Savage for Artcritical he relates to one of your works as capturing a “post-postmodern moment.” What is your take on that?

Laura Karetzky: Post-modernism argues that there are many, many, different stories. Post-modernism rejects any one story. Without one true common language you have fragmentation, or a constant transition among stories. One person pulled in many different directions. Stephen Savage refers to the relationship between immediacy (the computer) and disintermediation (cutting out the middle man). Here, he is discussing my painting Met Breuer, 2017, and a scene where there are multiple chronologies, divergent perspectives and time trajectories. In my work I am constantly asking, which narrative is ours? Which narrative is mine, which is yours? Is there the possibility of engaging multiple narratives as multiple selves simultaneously?

Laura Karetzky, Embedded Lovermont, 2019, oil on wood, 14” x 11”. Photo: James Wade

AS: In that interview you identify yourself as a “narrative artist,”, or “diaristic.” Can you elaborate on that and how it ties into the time element in your work?

Laura Karetzky: The time element I refer to there has to do with the evolution of my practice and the action of chronicling and recording. Over the years my work has comprised a visual diary of sorts, with themes that probe the minutia and personal but convey something broader. I often think of myself as a memoirist or a short story writer, only I use images, not words. In the same way an author might, I am editing the color or tone, honing the essence of the composition to get at the crux of a feeling. My themes materialize simultaneously with my path of life, generally without adherence to strict strategy, so that I have the flexibility to adapt and change course. Exhausting one equation only leads to 3 more, and so on, I follow the train of thought. The strangeness of human existence; teenage awkwardness, relationships to and as parents, spouses, lovers, one’s self to the universe, abstract compositional relationships, shape to shape, color to color, flexibility, adaptability; real life is densely rich and I feel compelled to try and make sense of it daily.

AS: In that conversation you also referred to the discourse on figurative art, specifically referencing its dismissal when you were an undergraduate. Now figurative art seems to be back with gusto – how do you see that shift from your perspective today?

Laura Karetzky: Figuration is certainly back, and in a whole new way. In the last several months alone there have been so many noteworthy shows. This spring I was startled to see a show by Sean Scully at Lisson Gallery in New York. That he is now making figurative paintings—who’d have thought! In June he opened a show at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, of 23 large-format paintings depicting his son Oisin. “The color”, he told David Carrier in Hyperallergic March 19, 2019, “is open like expressionism.”

The return to figuration borrows from abstraction and serendipity. It incorporates an enormous range of approaches and techniques, often together, and is unabashedly unrestricted. It can be poly-systematic. It grounds us in the messiness of the human experience, which has been veiled by the antiseptic way that we’ve become accustomed to conducting our virtual expressions. There are groups of artists who are implementing a crude or “de-skilled” manner, and in this way they might embrace human experience as if to say, take it or leave it, this is the real part. Dana Schutz, in her recent show Imagine Me And You at Petzel Gallery this spring, is an example.

There is an enthusiastic re-taking of narrative representation by many Queer Artists, who make a platform for certain realities that have been historically sidelined. Louis Fratino’s recent show Come Softly to Me at Sikkema Jenkins &Co. presented outstanding paintings that were sentimental, vulnerable, loving and hopeful.

There are artists with impressively skillful academic chops. Many Black artists for instance, like Kehinde Wiley, Jennifer Packer, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Amy Sherald and Arcmanoro Niles. Just as exciting as it is to finally see some diversity in the top-level art stars, we are also seeing an abundance of diversity in approach to presenting our human story.

There are artists engaging cartooning like Nat Meade. Elise Engler has been visually recording the news every day since Trump was elected and her recent show at Frosh and Portman covered the walls top to bottom like a graphic novel. There are artists who are obsessively chronicling the familiar, like Kathryn Lynch, Josephine Halvorson, Matt Bollinger, Amy Bennett. Aubrey Levinthal showed paintings at Nancy Margolis Gallery last month that depicted everyday life with notable economy. She nailed visceral things like weight and texture with tremendously little.

There are artists who channel fantasy impulse, like Inka Essenhigh, David Humphrey, Barbara Friedman. Neo Rauch, From The Floor at the Drawing Center churns astonishing facility and cryptic story into a mix that leaves us awestruck and stupefied. And there are myriad others taking the figure to new places. Madeleine Mermall curated a show SPF 32 at Ulmer Art (up now) out of an abandoned, run down, old brewery in Bushwick. It feels like the art scene in the 80’s and has that same kind of energy, but features 32 figurative emerging artists.

I believe that as we continue to emerge from the long dominance of abstraction, coupled with a response to the new disjoined normal (the virtual: where we are physically and literally detached) it is only natural to long for the human. It’s part of the pendulum. When I was in art school at Carnegie-Mellon we were actively persuaded away from any kind of representation, it was banished from the classroom. I had to travel to Italy to find refuge in figuration but had a very hard time finding peers when I returned to the US. I attended graduate school at the New York Academy of Art (it was the only place I could find realism) and attended marathons at the New York Studio School. We were a small group of figurative artists, swimming up tide.

Laura Karetzky, Embedded Blue Mother, 2019, oil on wood, 48” x 60”. Photo: James Wade

AS: What is the genesis of depicting the iphone as a recurrent protagonist?

Laura Karetzky: In a simple answer, my work reflects my experience. Our phones are appendages and have changed the way we experience autonomy. They are now inextricable from our means of communicating and we are never alone.

I didn’t imagine I’d fixate on a smart-device, but it’s happening because the subject matter doesn’t stop giving me fodder. The first time I Skyped I was so affected by the uncanny that I never recovered. My experience of perspective was forever changed.

I did two paintings of that experience while on a residency at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs. “LapTop” and “Embedded Kisser”, both show the computer keys, the screen and some of the environment. Part of what struck me at the time was that I found myself forming designs with the iconography and moving it around my screen in live-time as I video chatted. I was directing the exchange and could do astonishing things, like put myself inside my partner’s mouth, literally anticipating his words, or place myself on his forehead like a bindi, like his third eye. I made the paintings to try and make sense of this notion, to try and own the experience that I found so strange and otherworldly. But I quickly realized that the course I had stumbled on was not going to be flushed out in one painting or two or even three. Nearly six years later, I am still chasing the concept, finding ways to turn it insideout, broadening my understanding of it.

AS: Tell me about your process. How do you start a painting?

Laura Karetzky: I start with the idea that a painting is a window. A narrative is also a window. There is the formal window, the narrative window and the metaphorical window. A screen is also a window that allows for infinite additional embedded windows. The toggling between these boxes has altered my approach to narrative and the picture plane. So I start with the idea that there will be multiple points of view or multiple perspectives to be invited into.

I began working with screen shots from real FaceTime exchanges on my smart-device in 2014. I preferred not to use models or construct artificial set ups, but always chose to react in real time to real exchanges spontaneously as they would strike me or give me pause. Initially the art included symbols and iconography from the program interface. I liked the cartoon element and I liked that they occupied another spacial dimension, but they also had the effect of pausing the image as a specific frozen moment in time. I needed to hone the idea of possibilities in narrative. I was so affected by the deluge of apertures on our computers, phones, televisions, and wondered: how could I engage time in narrative when there is not one view, but several?

Recently I have begun self-referencing, using my own paintings as outside source material, recombining them as coupled narratives that never really existed together. In this way I am using my own visual constructs as a personal deck of playing cards, (tarot cards?) that I can now layout together, mixing and matching, finding the new story. Perhaps this is a result of making prints with editions or multiple strikes from plates. The idea of repetition, I never considered that before now.

Sometimes, I will make “after sketches.” Upon finishing a large painting, I will go right into making a small version, relying mostly on muscle memory from what I have just figured out: I am practicing my own language. It’s the opposite of a preliminary sketch, which I’ve never done and always found tediously boring.

. Laura Karetzky, Teal Text Window, 2019, oil on wood, 48” x 60”. Photo: James Wade

AS: You seem to work in series, or in thematic clusters. Does that description make sense to you and if so, can you share your related thought process, for example in your Embedded paintings from 2018.

Laura Karetzky: My work is always moving somewhere, just as I am moving and adapting. The ideas advance because of experience and discoveries. So the themes or clusters are there by nature, though really, a “series” is just an evolution or necessary next steps from the previous.

With “Embedded”, in early 2018 I was trying to connect the two disparate realities of one FaceTime conversation by forcing the graphic tensions and abstract patterns through light and dark. I approached the oil paintings like drawings, using a nearly monochromatic palate made up with gray-blues and gray-browns that in many ways read like charcoal sketches. I wanted to turn the static screen-shot into an anachronistic drawing-type image in order to submerge the “selfie” in art history. Using an indirect technique of thin oil glazes, I could delicately build up the surface day by day. This accumulation of marks would suggest the amount of time involved, somewhat like Giacometti, though the result is completely different.

Later that year, in an attempt to expand my mark-making and accentuate the idea of the invested effort of the artist’s hand, I decided to employ woodcut, where the marks are definite and unforgiving. I studied printmaking with Andrew Mockler (Jungle Press) at the Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, where I was able to use a press that had once belonged to Robert Motherwell. When I began printing I was looking for optimal contrast and started by mixing optical blacks from blues and browns, as I had in the early FaceTime paintings. However, the incidental hues could not be contained, and I became seduced by the textural things printing would do with color. I didn’t sleep or eat, remaining in the studio from 7am until well after midnight. My obsessive dreams were of nothing but smears of color, I was a junkie, lusting for more. In this phase of the “Embedded” project I needed to feel lost, out of control, and to experience the awe of discovery in my pursuit, just as I have with the concept. I will be returning to FAWC next month to continue work on an edition that incorporates numerous etched plates and woodcuts in various sizes puzzled together. It’s an unwieldy process with so many variables that I have very little control—a sensation that is so unfamiliar to me, that I am elated by it.

In early 2019 the Met Breuer mounted a major survey of the Argentine-Italian artist Lucio Fontana, whose “Cut” paintings leave a slash in the picture plane, breaking through to another space. However, his early ceramic works, which hung on the wall like paintings, spoke to me most emphatically. I became fixated with the idea that a single work could be a painting-sculpture hybrid. Could it also be a narrative-narrative hybrid? So, I’ve begun applying my “Embedded” ideas in porcelain as constructed wall hangings. I am conflating painting, drawing, printmaking, woodcarving, photography, video and technology within the context of a porcelain sculpture. I’m not sure what to call them yet, but they are another “cluster” as you say, and they are casting a major impact, in turn, on what I am now doing with my paintings.

Laura Karetzky, Embedded Profile, 2016, oil on wood, 12” x 9”. Photo: James Wade

AS: Let’s take a look at your video installations, for example “SleepCycle.”

Laura Karetzky: It was part of my collaborative exhibition with the composer Manuel Sosa, “In-Communication/In-Transit” at BRIC House, Brooklyn in 2016. This show, which included 5 videos, 5 original music scores and 8 paintings, all in dialogue, emerged out of a need to confront time and sound in this body of work.

“SleepCycle 11:34”, is a looped video sculpture, which is wall projected at 87” on top of a painting. In the projection, a man sleeps mid-flight on an airplane headed somewhere. The cabin is dark and the only real light comes from the daylight outside the airplane window. This oval shaped window provides the main light source for the installation, illuminating a painting that is designed to line up with it. The shape moves with the bounce and vibration of the airplane and as a result it appears like a searchlight on the wall of the gallery, forever finding the painting. The painting itself, depicts two distinct versions of the same book, in bed together: Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, translations by Aaron Asher, and by Michael Henry Heim, each into English. “SleepCycle” is concerned with the postmodern idea of truth. How can we not be skeptical towards the truth if there are multiple variations of it? Where, if ever, does correspondence land if the intended recipient is unreceptive?

Recently, as I have been rehashing my own work, this installation also became a singular painting where the embedded image took on another dimension. The work once again morphed, into another version of truth.

Laura Karetzky, Embedded Read, 2019, Porcelain and porcelain slip, 10 1/8” x 8”. Photo: James Wade

AS: And your multimedia video and painting “ScreenSaver”?

Laura Karetzky: “Screensaver 15:21 looped”, is an 81” wall projected video overlapping several small paintings of text messages, news alerts, and internet warnings, and was part of “The Expanding Matrix”, a group show at the Amelie Wallace Gallery, SUNY College, curated by Fred Fleischer in 2017. Manuel Sosa composed the sound. In it, the large projection depicts a building wrapped in construction tarp and scaffolding. The sheer size of the tarp reminds us of Greek statues with draping togas and cascading fabrics. As the wind blows, the tarp ripples to reveal vacant windows of the gutted building whose voids might be possible vessels of future inhabitants, or portals for information transference. The paintings of messages, which sit away from the wall at 2” thickness and similarly mimic windows, hover, appearing both static and moving at the same time.

“Screensaver” grew out of the need to confront 3 dimensions. I had been turning over the idea that if narratives are traveling on different trajectories, they can’t all be happening on the same timeline. I am continuing to question things like: which plane are we existing in when we intersect with other narrative trajectories and how are they revealed to us? Do we cross paths, overlap, collide? In those moments, does the narrative become something else, something in 4 dimensions?

Laura Karetzky, Sleep Cycle, 2017, multimedia video sculpture, 87” x 49”, duration: 11:34. Photo Rebecca Stevens
Detail (Sleep Cycle embedded painting). Translations, 2014, oil on wood, 11” x 14”. Photo: James Wade

AS: You are having an upcoming solo show. What can you share about the body of work you are showing there?

Laura Karetzky: At this point, I am now working more broadly with the concept of the embedded narrative, although the screen remains the catalyst. Any box is a portal for possibilities of transference, and there are unending destinations. These are the questions I am occupied with.

I’ll be presenting a solo show of new paintings in October at Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Los Angeles. As I am no longer bound to the form of the screenshot, but am more interested in the metaphorical idea of windows, some of the work engages alternate realities where one narrative is intrinsically housed in another, perhaps as a reflection, a ghost image, or a shape that reads two ways.

One of the most striking changes is that I am using color in a way that I never have before. The paintings are expressive and brightly saturated. I am rolling out large swaths of chroma and approaching the canvas like a printer’s plate that can be rubbed down and manipulated. Implementing techniques borrowed from woodcarving, printmaking, sculpture, my peers, I have carved into wet paint, scratched, dripped and dabbed all kinds of textures. Some of the paintings feel like excavations.

I have been calling them Ratios. I like the reference to analogy, symbol, mathematical systems, the couple. But are they also Poems, and I like the reference to metaphor, written word, intentional editing.

Laura Karetzky, Sisterhood, 2019, oil on wood, 40” x 30”. Photo: James Wade
Laura Karetzky, BBQ Flavor, 2019, oil on wood, 24” x 30”. Photo: James Wade

Laura Karetzky, Ratio : Poems opens October 26, 2019, at Lora Schlesinger Gallery, Santa Monica Bergamot Station, Los Angeles CA.

Laura Karetzky in her studio, TwoTrees Subsidy Space, Dumbo. Photo: James Wade