by David M. Roth
No one smashes art-historical silos like Kara Maria. Her gonzo-poetic abstract landscapes – pastiches of gestural abstraction, Pop Art, action-comic iconography and natural history rendered in retina-tingling colors — are meticulously crafted exercises in well-ordered chaos. They attract and repel attention in roughly equal measure and resist, just as strenuously, easy interpretation. Had works like these appeared in the 1980s or 1990s, they’d be seen as appropriation. Looked at in today’s light these elements carry no such connotation; they’re simply part of the artist’s toolkit, a means to an end. They extend both the methods used and the themes sounded in her previous show in this space, Haywire (2015). That exhibition, markedly smaller, was shoehorned into the gallery’s backroom. This one, Post-Nature, luxuriates across the gallery’s two main rooms and consists of 12 canvases and three works on paper, ranging in size from 22 x 30 inches to 60 x 60 inches.
Here, as before, the focus is on species extinction, expressed by the presence of wildlife painted with a level of realism Audubon might have envied. The creatures perch and/or roam seemingly unmolested amidst scenes of catastrophic disarray. That sensation is conveyed by Richter-esque squeegee pulls, spray can blasts, Benday dots, color splashes that resemble paintball explosions, and glitchy shapes that sprawl across canvases like pulled taffy. Seen in aggregate, these features, laid down in thin, semi-transparent layers, describe a cacophonous universe in which everything we take for granted has become dangerously unmoored, hinting at dystopian scenarios that are already fast unfolding and that may, at some point, become even scarier when human life is superseded by artificial intelligence (AI).
The AI pioneer Ray Kurzeweil, Google’s chief engineer, for example, has predicted the advent of androids that surpass human intelligence and possess free will and emotion. Likewise, the computer scientist, David Levy, predicted sex between humans and robots by 2050, as did Susan Seidelman’s hilarious send-up of a film, Making Mr. Right (1987), featuring John Malkovich and Ann Magnusson. To look at Maria’s works is to feel the dire weight of those possibilities, of a future in which nature, long under siege, becomes hopelessly degraded.
Here, it’s important to note that the animals she pictures (reptiles, marine mammals, primates and big cats) are, in most instances, barely visible. You really have to look to see them. What jumps out is how unperturbed they are by the ensuing mayhem. Their native mannerisms and body language remain intact, indicating that they are unaware of their fate. On the viewing end it’s a bit like knowing the plotline of a murder in which the victim remains clueless right up to the end. As viewers we become witnesses, if not accomplices. And so, if you harbor any empathy whatsoever for wildlife, this gulf — between what we know and what the animals don’t know — makes the experience of looking at these works emotionally wrenching.
At the time of her prior show, Haywire, the artist described her approach as “cheerfully apocalyptic.” It’s a great elevator pitch, but it seems to run counter to the ethos communicated by her paintings. To the best of my knowledge, the only ones cheering the apocalypse are fundamentalist Christians who think their faith will save them when the end
arrives. Many, in fact, actively root for it, a phenomenon well documented by the novelist Robert Stone in Damascus Gate (1998). Maria, wielding a paintbrush like a weapon, fights such thinking. Her animals stand as surrogates for humanity and for what remains of organic human consciousness.
However wacky they may appear, her canvases function as fire-breathing polemics, arguments against the fiction that life can exist apart from or outside of nature.
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Kara Maria: “Post-Nature” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through March 17, 2018.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.