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Karen Carson

American, b. 1943

Flowers of Fate
1990-1991

Acrylic, plexiglass, electronic candles, and clocks on wood
196 x 144.25 x 4.5 in. (497.84 x 366.395 x 11.43 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
1996.74

By the end of the 1980s, Los Angeles artist Karen Carson had been for two decades successfully wrangling the formal and structural vocabulary of painting—particularly the construction of spatial illusion through color and geometry—when she suddenly inverted the playing field with a spectacular series of three-dimensional wall pieces that intruded aggressively from the picture plane into the viewer’s space. Her work began featuring strips of wooden molding—the architectural material from which picture frames are constructed—and fragments of mirrored plexiglass that sprouted from the surfaces of traditionally rectangular supports, but then rapidly began to morph into something rich and strange.

The molding began to take the form of cartoon explosions or metastasizing gemstones, whose edges pushed the serene rectilinear window of Renaissance painting technology in a dozen jagged directions. The mirrors set up a disorienting equivalency between the painting’s virtual reality and everything else—sneaking cubist slivers of the “real world” into the viewer’s peripheral vision.

Soon these ingredients were augmented by colored plexiglass and such unlikely collage elements as giant metal butterflies, elaborate Googie-era clocks, and—in the case of Flowers of Fate—a pair of functioning electric candles. This flirtation with kitsch extended to the painted content, where earlier abstract gestural brushwork coalesced into vernacular pictorial motifs reminiscent of tattoo design— flames, skulls, devils, lightning bolts—or traditional folk art botanical patterns— leaves, grape clusters, and, of course, flowers.

Flowers of Fate is a tour de force example from this series, a stunning recon figuration of the most banal still-life subject matter—a vase full of flowers—into a ferociously decorative, profoundly ambivalent, LOL absurdist bouquet, gathering the blossoms of a dozen historical movements— rococo, cubism, abstract expressionism, feminism, geometric minimalism—into an arrangement that “on paper” couldn’t possibly work. Which is probably why she had to use wood, plexiglass, found clocks, and electric candles!

Doug Harvey


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