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you thought surrealism was dead. In "Surreal Hybrids," her weird and
wonderful new show Chicago painter Karena A. Karras proves that the grand if slightly
nutty tradition of Max Ernst and Salvador Dali has life in it yet.
is part of a direct line that goes back to the movement's founding in the early
20th century, connecting with Ernst and Dali by way of two female Europeans who
learned from their brethren and went on to find their own voices in Mexico: Remedios
Varo, originally from Spain, and Leonora Carrington, the British expatriate who
lived with Ernst and with whom Karras formed a friendship when Carrington lived
in Oak Park.
You see a lot -- occasionally too much -- of Varo and Carrington
in Karras' work, but she's no pale imitation. Quite the opposite: She takes the
best qualities of her predecessors' work (especially its ironic echoes of the
Italian Renaissance) and intensifies them, then layers on her particular melange
of psychology and mythology. In the process, she performs a virtuoso and oddly
precise balance-beam act directly on the line between fantasy and reality. It's
terrific, playful and seriously beautiful stuff, with a bubbling vitality all
As her title suggests, Karras fixates on the theme of metamorphosis,
manifested here in the repeated morphing of the human figure (and specifically
the human female) into states both animal and vegetable. A triptych, "Flora,
Fauna, Flora," spells this out with a series of portraits of vampire-pale
women with Modigliani throats, their scalps sprouting flowers or ferns, their
chests adorned with garlands of petals, seed pods and insects.
and the Greeks, accordingly, would have recognized these ghostly heroines, but
they might have been puzzled by the sense that, unlike Daphne and other maidens
cruelly transformed by lecherous or capricious gods, Karras' women are far from
victims. The alchemy that enchants them, that turns their feet into tree roots
and their hair into lush foliage or bird's nests or wisps of smoke, is of their
own making. If gender politics were allegorized here, it would be of the expressly
woman-empowered variety. (A possible exception is "The Bath," in which
a winged creature who might be the offspring of Leda and the Swan appears to be
in the midst of being boiled alive, but maybe not. You get the feeling that she
likes it hot.)
But I doubt that the artist is thinking along those lines.
She has bigger, deeper, stranger things on her mind, or, rather, in its swampy
depths -- things that slither and squirm beneath the level of consciousness, making
lovely, ominous ripples on its surface.
The question isn't what these
ripples reveal as much as what they hide. While at first glance the paintings
seem crammed with narrative, for example, the stories they tell are tantalizingly
partial, as if arrested in mid-chapter. Theirs is the macabre logic of dreams:
perplexing yet not quite nonsense, bizarre and vaguely troubling yet also unaccountably
familiar and even mordantly funny. (If you can't smile at "Insomnia,"
with its cackling crone sporting a fruit-tree coiffure and flushing a covey of
ghost moths from her late-night reading, you need to consult your old copy of
the Brothers Grimm, who knew how to tell a joke both before and after the wolf
You can strain to construct a neat box to contain this
profusion of metaphysical symbols and Jungian archetypes -- eggs, for example,
which are as plentiful here as they are in a hen house -- but the exercise is
both frustrating and, probably, counterproductive; to impose narrative coherence
on this body of work is to miss its point. What matters is not what sense it makes
but the thoughts and feelings it conjures (yes, conjures) in the viewer: fear
or acceptance of the body's impermanence, of its molecular connection with nature,
and of its intertwined beauty and horror.
All this is rendered with
superior craftsmanship, including perfectly spaced composition, assured draftsmanship
and luscious Old Master oil brushwork, all of it gleaming beneath layered glazes
of the sort we associate with Rembrandt and Vermeer.
There is, not unexpectedly,
a polarizing quality about Karras' work. You either really get it or you really
don't. If you tend to remember and treasure your dreams, and perhaps even write
them down, you'll probably find yourself attracted to "Surreal Hybrids."
If not, you may find some new characters on the stage of your nightly dream-theater.
Just don't try to touch their hair.
Top 10 events of 2005.|
Toulouse-Lautrec tops year in art, architecture
Chicago Sun Times
December 18, 2005
Art and Architecture Critic
It was a memorable
year, 2005, at least for lovers of art and architecture in Chicago. It was the
year of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Dan Flavin, of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
and Santiago Calatrava. It was the year of Chicago artists Frank Connet, Karena
Karras and Audrey Niffenegger. And it was the year of Petah Coyne, a New Yorker
whose spectacular retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center was one of the
most majestic highlights of a grand season.
therefore, are my top 10 art and architecture events of the year.
"Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" at the Art Institute of Chicago:
The year's biggest and best-attended art exhibit, the Art Institute's brilliant
show revealed the tragic insight of the great French artist when it opened in
July. Best-known for his entertainingly naughty posters of the Moulin Rouge, Lautrec
emerged here as a humane and soulful artist whose searing double vision of late
19th-century Paris as heaven and hell was brought into sharp focus.
"Above and Beneath the Skin" by Petah Coyne at the Chicago Cultural
Center: The year's most electrifying one-person show, this distillation of
the best of the artist's work over the past two decades haunts this viewer still.
Seductive and sinister, Coyne's almost chokingly atmospheric sculpture and installations
seemed, as I wrote in May, "to have staggered up out of a primordial swamp
of Western and Asian folk tales, Catholic mysticism, Freudian psychology and the
Gothic imagination of Poe and Mary Shelley."
3. Santiago Calatrava's
Fordham Spire: It might seem strange to include this project, since it remains
uncertain that the Spanish "starchitect's" design for a hotel-condo
tower, which would be the tallest building in the U.S., will ever get built. But
there's no denying that, when it was announced in July, the project's exquisitely
tapering spiral design caught the public's imagination. Even if it only ever exists
on paper, the Spire is drop-dead gorgeous.
4. Audrey Niffenegger's
The Three Incestuous Sisters: Some of the year's best art since it was available
since August in bookstores in the form of this masterpiece of a novel-in-pictures
by Columbia College's resident genius. Fourteen years in the making, The
Three Incestuous Sisters tells a crackling good melodrama about love, jealousy
and loss -- mostly by means of a series of breathtakingly beautiful aquatint prints
that incorporate influences as diverse as Francisco Goya, Edward Gorey, film noir
and Japanese manga.
5. Renovation of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's S.R.
Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology: Mies' renowned temple
of architecture on the IIT campus had been looking rough at the edges, but this
year's renovation, overseen by Chicago architect Mark Sexton and unveiled in August,
has it looking spiffier than ever, its glass replaced and its grayed-out steel
I-beams repainted a robust black. "In an unexpected way," I wrote, "this
newly pumped-up muscularity of color reveals, punctuates, supports and complements
the glass more powerfully than before, making the building's south face seem even
more transparent and floating."
Karras in "Surreal Hybrids" at the Gruen Galleries: In her small,
shockingly good and sadly short-lived September show, this Chicago artist proved
that there's life left in the Surrealist tradition. A bold visual essay on metaphysical
transformation, it conjures what I called "fear or acceptance of the body's
impermanence, of its molecular connection with nature, and of its intertwined
beauty and horror."
7. The re-unveiling of Cloud Gate
in Millennium Park: Another unfinished project, Anish Kapoor's giant sculpture
-- reopened to the public this fall with more still to be done to buff out the
seams of its mirrored stainless-steel surface -- has nonetheless emerged as perhaps
Chicago's favorite public artwork. Its reflective, image-warping quality, which
bends viewers and neighboring buildings to its figurative will, has proved irresistible.
8. Frank Connet textiles at the Douglas Dawson Gallery in September:
This talented Chicago artist combines his expert knowledge of antique textiles
to create startlingly contemporary and vibrantly colorful compositions influenced
by ethnographic imagery and Abstract Expressionism.
9. Visionary Chicago
Architecture: This volume of architectural concepts for seven "gateway"
locations in Chicago, guided by Stanley Tigerman and issued in May, is full of
delightfully imaginative ideas by some of the city's best young and established
architects, including John Ronan, Jeanne Gang, Helmut Jahn, Dirk Lohan, Carol
Ross Barney, Doug Garofalo and Adrian Smith. The concepts aren't always practical,
but they sure are thought-provoking.
10. "Dan Flavin: A Retrospective"
at the Museum of Contemporary Art: This late artist, a Minimalist icon whose
medium was fluorescent light in various colors, isn't everyone's cup of chai --
in part because he was, in life, so cantankerous. But you could see, in the MCA's
lovingly installed summer show, a fugitive spirituality -- a radiance that connects,
whether he intended it or not, to the infinite.
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The Art Center Highland Park
'beasts' of Devils and Beasts are most often half-human, half-kindled into animal.
Both folktales and fairy tales reference such halfway transformations, which may
be alternately commentary, penance, or release. Karena A. Karras's work in oil
tends toward expressions of mystical, symbolic content. In The Bath (oil on board)
Karras depicts a swan-woman, rampant in a tall chimney-like vessel which is actually
an alchemical bath. Her long, curving neck and pale torso reflect an aching desire
for beauty; but which way, into which creature, woman or bird, is the transformation
occurring? A white dog and a full moon add to the impression of mystery and metamorphosis.
The dour bird-faced woman of a nearby painting, Ezgadi (oil on board), also by
Karras, suggests the unhappy result of such transformation.
Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews
since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.