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Speaking the Language of Paint: Karen Schwartz at Life on Mars

Karen Schwartz, “Down the Rabbit Hole” (2014), mixed media on linen, 72 x 60 inches (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The paintings in Karen Schwartz’s show at Life on Mars are big, bold semi-abstractions that skate along the edge of chaos. That she is also a practicing psychotherapist is a factor that should or should not have a bearing on her work, depending on your bias toward biography. Either way, these are artworks that make the most out of what they’re made of: paint.

In his perceptive essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, the artist and writer Robert C. Morgan notes:

From the artist’s perspective, her work is less about illustrating psychoanalytic theory, which plays an ancillary role, than about what she discovers in the act of painting. Because her images are, in fact, contingent on the role played by the unconscious, they emerge not from the platonic ether, but from primal crustaceans that inhabit the tide pools of our minds. They arrive often without a clear sense of meaning and without the necessity of concise methodology in pursuit of their meaning. Her images arrive not through the process of therapy but through painting.

Despite the recognizable humans, birds and animals floating in and out of Schwartz’s canvases, Morgan argues that her work is more strongly connected to Abstract Expressionism than to a likelier source, the figurative imagery of 1980s Neo-Expressionism. Compared with the latter, which “was primarily generated in Europe” and “contained a cynical edge,” Schwartz’s practice is guileless, open and instinctual.

The show may be called Down the Rabbit Hole (after one of the paintings on display), but Schwartz’s images, which are built up, as Morgan puts it, “without a clear sense of meaning,” stand apart from Neo-Expressionism’s field of literary and mythic references. The allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books acts more like a cultural touchstone than an attempt to establish a narrative connection to Wonderland.

Karen Schwartz, “Pink Lady” (2014), mixed media on linen, 72 x 60 inches

One of the paintings on view, “Pink Lady” (2014), shares a title with Willem de Kooning’s masterwork of 1944, although the red-lipsticked, teeth-baring grin on Schwartz’s figure seems to have been styled after his “Woman and Bicycle” (1952–53). It’s a citation that reads as a jumping-off point, rather than an appropriation or homage, much in the same way that de Kooning pasted photos of women’s mouths, cut out from magazines, onto his canvases in order to get his juices flowing.

The rest of the painting has nothing to do with de Kooning’s angular, neo-Cubist “Pink Lady” — Schwartz’s brushstrokes, congregating in patches of white, pink and yellow, are endowed with a loose, flickering, Joan Mitchell-esque shimmer. Soft, curling, powder blue lines define the contours of the hair, chin and hand. Given the distinct lack of pink on the figure (the predominant colors are shades of yellow on her bodice and strokes of white that all but obscure her face), you are left to wonder whether she’s the Pink Lady, or if it’s the ghostly effigy emerging from smears of red and pink on her right.

In the middle of the top edge of the canvas, as well as its near-dead-center, there are clotted, three-dimensional blossoms made from paint apparently scraped semi-dried from the canvas or off the artist’s palette. These unnameable intrusions into real space are as inexplicable as anything else in the picture — the red lips, the whitewashed face, the pink ghost — yet all of Schwartz’s elements, once you’ve stood in their presence and allowed their disparate textures time to coagulate, strike an instinctively visual and material balance.

Karen Schwartz, “Phoenix of Sheepshead Bay” (2014), mixed media on linen, 72 x 60 inches

Standing in their presence is the operative term here. A composition that may appear loosely tethered in a reproduction becomes surprisingly weighty and cohesive in person. This is especially true of the lustrous “Phoenix of Sheepshead Bay” (2014), where a crusty image of the mythical bird rises on the right side of the canvas, while a cerulean blue line, echoing the contour of the phoenix’s head, neck and wing, plays across a violet field with astonishing lyricism.

Karen Schwartz, “Whoops!” (2015), mixed media on wood panel, 36 x 36 inches

In this work, Schwartz’s intuitive handling of paint is at its most revelatory, as the mutable textures of the surface and the density of the pigment absorb the tenuous linear framework indicating the flying bird: the image empties out, overwhelmed by the physical properties of the paint, and then reconstitutes itself as you continue to look at it, much like the fabled creature it depicts.

In his essay, referring to the artist’s dual career, Morgan writes that she “works on a parallel track” between painting and psychotherapy, “and is clear about that distinction. Schwartz says that both practices afford access to unformulated experience.” Looking at “Phoenix of Sheepshead Bay” or the eponymous “Down the Rabbit Hole” (2014), with its scrawled animal heads (which look more like horses or donkeys than rabbits) and cascading swatches of pink, it becomes more than evident that Schwartz, in the act of painting, just lets it fly without the slightest regard to where the dust will settle — if it settles at all.

Nor does she seem to care when her stylistic approach veers from the thatched and smeared brushstrokes in the paintings mentioned above, to the more hard-edged, art brut-inflected forms of “Whoops!” (2015) and “Totemism” (2014). Whatever the image, it speaks the language of paint — no symbols are assigned, and meaning is recognized (as in the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s notion of intertextuality) as outside of the author’s control.

Karen Schwartz, “Totemism” (2014), mixed media on linen, 72 x 60 inches

The theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung begat Surrealism and Automatism, which begat Abstract Expressionism (and it is worth noting that the members of the 8th Street Club participated in discussions on psychology led by Gestalt therapy’s founders, Paul Goodman and Fritz Perls). Within the continuously unraveling and reknotted tapestry of art and psychology, materials and meaning, Schwartz’s work would seem to close one particular loop, in which “access to unformulated experience” — the inchoate mass of emotions meeting the inchoate mass of paint — is processed through the knowledge and instincts of someone practiced in both, and who knows the limits of one over the other.

Karen Schwartz: Down the Rabbit Hole continues at Life on Mars Gallery (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through May 31.

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