Karen David: Searching for the Viable Essence

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Karen David Searching for the Viable Essence

Jacob’s Island Gallery 16 September – 11 November 2011

Karen David 'Searching for the Viable Essence' 16 September – 11 November 2011 Jacob‟s Island Gallery is pleased to present ‘Searching for the Viable Essence’, the debut solo show of London based artist Karen David. Karen David‟s practice explores the relationship between high and low culture by juxtaposing painting styles from Post Painterly Abstraction with found imagery and objects from „new age‟ spirituality - in doing so, questioning our belief systems in these hierarchies and highlighting the slippage that exists between them. David‟s progressive approach to painting is premised on challenging our beliefs in the objectification of spirituality through artefacts. Her work creates modern day meditations that derive from placing dreamcatchers and crystals with appropriations of Abstraction. Through apparently simple painterly gestures and mark-making, David comments on mysticism and the meditative quality of how we might visualise the aura of these objects. Within the exhibition David presents dreamcatchers which are suspended from circular canvases imbued with concentric circles, in order to reference Kenneth Nolan‟s seminal target paintings. This marriage adds an alternative reading to the original reading of the artwork, as they now become associated with the filtering of negative and positive energies as told in the myth of dreamcatchers. The depiction of her crystal paintings also play with the idea of the radiating power we imagine the art object to hold. Displayed on top of inverted pyramids, David presents Apophyllite crystals associated with clarity and purifying properties, which seem to bleed into the dark density of the painting and activate its “viable essence”. 1 Karen David is currently studying MA Fine Art at Wimbledon College of Art. In 2011 she was selected by Dexter Dalwood for Creekside Open at APT Gallery. Other groups show include: Futura Oblique, The Nunnery, Bow Arts Centre, Tag: From 3 to 45. New London Painting, Brown Gallery and I Want to Believe, Millais Off-Site Projects, Southampton Solent University.

The term “viable essence” was first quoted by Greenberg in a Mark Rothko biography: “...a discarding of “expendable conventions”–e.g., figuration– in a quest to reduce painting “to its viable essence”.” Mark Rothko: A Biography. James E. B. Breslin. 1


Desert Rose 12.8.11, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with Desert Rose crystal, 44 x 35cm


Apophyllite II, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with Apophyllite crystal, 52 x 50cm


Apophyllite V, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with Apophyllite crystal, 53.5 x 50cm


Apophyllite III, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with Apophyllite crystal, 51 x 50cm


Apophyllite VI, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with Apophyllite crystal, 51 x 50cm


Apophyllite 7.8.11, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with Apophyllite crystal, 52 x 50cm


Experiment X – Dream Catching with Kenneth Noland, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with dreamcatcher, 53 x 28cm


Experiment XII – Dream Catching with Kenneth Noland, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with dreamcatcher, 230 x 120cm


Experiment VIII – Dream Catching with Kenneth Noland, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with dreamcatcher, 38 x 17cm


Experiment VII – Dream Catching with Kenneth Noland, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with dreamcatcher, 2011, 56 x 31cm


Experiment XI – Dream Catching with Kenneth Noland, 2011 Acrylic on canvas with dreamcatcher, 205 x 120cm


Installation shot


Installation shot


Karen David – Searching for the Viable Essence A sculpture made of wood and feathers hangs beneath an unprimed canvas, loosely painted in concentric circles of green, purple, yellow and blue. The canvas looks like a target or, more specifically, like a target painting, in the style of 1950s Abstract Expressionism. And the sculpture looks like a wind chime or a dream catcher – the kind of souvenir you might buy to remind yourself of a different culture. As the title soon lets you know, in Karen David‟s Experiment VIII – Dream Catching with Kenneth Noland, the canvas is indeed a target painting (in the style of Kenneth Noland‟s famous target paintings, part of the Abstract Expressionist canon) and the sculptural object is indeed a dreamcatcher. Combined in one artwork, the two objects exert a transformative effect on each other. This starts with a series of formal rhymes that link the objects visually – the concentric circles of the target echo the overlaid circles of the dreamcatcher‟s net, for example, and the feathered lines at the outskirts of the painting echo the feathers hanging from the sculpture beneath. Meanwhile, the title of the work draws both elements into a single action. The result is a strong pairing of two powerful mythologies: Abstract Expressionist painting and Native American mysticism. In a series of paintings on triangular canvases, the mutual, physical effects of different parts of the artwork are even more pronounced. In Apophyllite 7.8.11, for example, a slab of silver-white crystals balances on the horizontal edge of the canvas. Beneath it, a stream of „silver white‟ paint appears to have bled – or perhaps it has been withdrawn – from the mineral, staining the black surface of the canvas beneath. The canvas itself is hung so that its tip points downwards, like a chevron, and also like a shelf – specially placed, perhaps, for the stone. As in Experiment, here the sculptural object and the painting each resonate with their own sets of meanings. Apophyllite crystal is said to symbolise wind and to link the physical and spiritual worlds; while the canvas recalls a number of the architects of High Modernism: Russian Constructivist icon paintings, Noland‟s shaped canvasses, Jackson Pollock‟s and Helen Frankenthaler‟s techniques of dripping and pouring paint. But brought together – under the rubric of „art‟ - these elements seem to develop a mutual dependency. They act on each other to create a new object, that is more than the sum of its parts. The strength of these relationships lies in the latent materialism of both the objects that Karen David uses in her work, and the art historical context to which her paintings refer. Dreamcatchers, for instance, are believed to filter out bad dreams – catching ideas in their nets, they let good dreams slide down their feathers to the sleeper below. The healing properties of crystals, meanwhile, are thought to derive from their internal crystalline structures, through which energy passes in different ways. Finally, Modernist painting (as defined by its champion, the art critic Clement Greenberg) is a steady march towards painting as pure being: a flat canvas, a field of colour, and an evocation of pure sensation in the viewer. Rather than a window onto another world,


contemporary theories described Abstract Expressionist painting2 as tapping into a kind of natural force, exerting a profound effect on its environment. The discourse of Modernism, then, trusts artwork to transform ideas into objects, just like a dreamcatcher; and to resound with its own pure being, like a crystal. But Karen David‟s objects soon come to symbolise much more than this (aspirational) material essentialism. Plucked from their „native‟ or „natural‟ environments – by dint of being placed together – each of these elements must also stand for the whole of the context they left behind. As well as being a target painting, then, the canvas in Experiment also represents target painting, Abstract Expressionism and a host of other ideas springing from there. Likewise, the crystals in Karen David‟s work are not just crystals, but also representations of crystals or crystal healing. And the dreamcatchers are not just dreamcatchers, but also symbols of Native American culture. Importantly – to a contemporary, London audience, at least – these resonances are inexact and blurred around the edges. All unifying theories which seek to reconcile physical and spiritual realities, the potential meanings of Modernism, Native American culture and crystal healing spill outwards in all directions. And yet, these expansive ideas are grounded in a shared space (if not time). Although the artist has no particular connection with the country, the discourses she chooses to draw from are each, in their own way, associated with (fictionalised, or semi-fictionalised) versions of America: America‟s post-war intellectual and economic freedom, America‟s ancient, half-disappeared history, America‟s vast, unexplored landscapes. I would argue that „America‟, as the cultural touchstone and location for Western popular culture, is in fact the home of all modern myths and storytelling per se. There is, then, a complex layering of mythology in Karen David‟s work. Through exploring a series of discourses that search for spiritual and physical unity, the artist weaves a new context concerned with the fact and the facts of the search itself – that is, with the desire for unity, and also with (generalised) manifestations of that desire: abstract shapes, mythmaking, American dreamscapes. In this way, these juxtapositions acknowledge the search „For the Viable Essence‟, in which the objects (including the paintings) are engaged, and also question it. Does the unlikely combination of „Dream catching with Kenneth Noland‟ amplify the possibilities of both pursuits? Or does the anachronistic pairing reveal the ineffectiveness of each? Karen David describes her use of motifs as an „aesthetic shorthand‟: a technique that quotes from different cultural discourses – both implying an ever expanding field of signification, and demonstrating the artists‟ authorship in an unqualified (or partly qualified) re-use of cultural signs. At first, this seems like the quintessential Postmodern technique of „reappropriation‟, in which a shared artistic context flattens the field of cultural comparison and exposes how tangled and contradictory meaning can be. But Karen David‟s work falls short of this kind of Postmodern cynicism. Rather than flattening the cultural field, the artist retains a cautious respect for her „found objects‟ that allows their potential to grow. 2

Following contemporary theorists and practitioners, I define Abstract Expressionism as one movement on the trajectory of High Modernism. Abstract Expressionism is therefore a painterly expression of Modernism, while Modernism encompasses more than Abstract Expressionism.


For example, Karen David‟s use of crystals and dream catchers is cautious and complete – apart from taking them out of context, she does not alter their materiality in any way. Similarly, the paintings are faithful to the aims and techniques of the artists whose styles they recall. Indeed, she paints the pictures herself (a more Postmodern technique might be to use a poster or a photograph as an emblem of the act of reproduction). These paintings are not copies of famous works, then, but reproductions of the ideas and processes of Abstract Expressionism and Modernism as a whole. They are not, in fact, found objects at all – but individual, authored artworks in their own right. Moreover, it is Karen David‟s painterly touch that drives the transformative effects of the different elements in her artworks. And, importantly, that ensures these effects are mutual. In Desert Rose 12.8.11, for example, she uses a different painterly style to that of her triangular or circular canvasses. Here, the black, rectangular painting is underscored with two interlocking pyramids in fading white and grey. These tight geometric shapes reflect and simplify the structure of the crystal perched above. Unlike the other paintings, this canvas does not bear the hallmarks of a particular, canonical style. Instead, Karen David has absorbed the principles of Modernist painting to abstract the essence of the Desert Rose into a flat plane. As such, Desert Rose 12.8.11 takes partial inspiration from the crystalline structure of the stone. The artist extends the same watchful respect to the mythology of crystals, in other words, as she does to the mythology of Modernism. What this comes down to is a playful but earnest understanding of the context of „art‟ as a space for experiment, magic and myth-making. „Searching for the Viable Essence‟ is not a casual juxtaposition of competing cultures. But nor is it a serious attempt to understand the complexities of the expansive worlds to which its elements refer. Instead, this show is a positive presentation of art as a cultural space in which a flock of different ideas circulate, resonate and build meaning. Karen David makes work that hovers between cynicism and sincerity, representational and material presence, reality and storytelling. (This mischievous spirit is reflected in a narrative that accompanies some of her work, in which Karen David questions the existence of the artworks at all.) Her work strikes a precarious balance between Modernism and Postmodernism – refusing the transcendence of the former, as well as the messy incompletion of the latter. „The Viable Essence‟, she suggests, lives in the undefined space in-between.

Mary Paterson, 2011 Mary Paterson is a writer and producer. www.MaryPaterson.tumblr.com


Searching for the ‘Viable Essence’ Whilst on holiday in Mexico last year, I found a National Geographic magazine discarded in a rented beach house in a little town called Sayulita. In an article entitled “The Cult of the Viable Essence” I read that sometime in the late 1960‟s the art critic Clement Greenberg was rumoured to have taken a brief retreat to Colorado Springs at the base of the Rocky Mountains, where he became the high priest of the cult known as the „Viable Essence‟. Some say that he was testing theories of social conditions for making art, other accounts say he was researching a paper on „self purification‟. It is thought that even though Greenberg returned to New York, a small group of disciples continued his work. Years later paintings were found in the groups‟ meeting house. Among the works found were copies of Morris Louis paintings with healing crystals placed on top of them, as well as copies of Kenneth Noland‟s „target‟ paintings with Native American dreamcatchers attached to them. Although no paintings were documented, the controversy continues to this day with some historians contesting the existence of these paintings and discrediting the claims of the few remaining followers who still explore Greenberg‟s teaching and his search for the „Viable Essence‟. Karen David, 2011


Jacob’s Island Gallery 56 Butler’s & Colonial Wharf 10–11 Shad Thames London SE1 2PY T. +44 (0)20 7407 8850 F. +44 (0)20 7378 0165 info@jacobsisland.co.uk www.jacobsisland.co.uk