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Karen Azarnia’s ‘Luminous’ at Terrain Exhibitions (all photographs courtesy Karen Azarnia)

CHICAGO — At Terrain Exhibitions, an artist-run space in Oak Park, Illinois, artist Karen Azarnia has created an installation consisting of a suite of banners that appear in varying light situations on the front porch of a suburban home. Using separated layers of cloth, Azarnia relies on actual light to penetrate the translucent images on fabric, and the result is a luminous, two-sided, shifting experience.

Sabina Ott, the founder of Terrain and the owner of the home where Karen’s piece is installed, reports that she often comes home to find neighbors gathered in the front yard, waiting for the figures to appear each evening. “We have increased the number of dog walkers on the block significantly,” Ott notes. Terrain is directly across from Longfellow Elementary School near Ridgeland and Jackson Avenues, and is also attracting interest from teachers and students.

Alongside Luminous — at an empty lot dubbed Terrain South — Brent Fogt has developed another site-specific installation: Gardenia Royale. Fogt’s sculptures recall the gravity of squash after a good week of rain and were partly inspired by the artist’s memories of his grandfather’s farm plot in central Texas.

Terrain is also planning a biennial in September of 2015; seven neighbors participated in a 2013 event hosting projects, performances, and children’s activities in and around their homes.

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John Seed: Can you tell me how the idea for this exhibition came about?

Karen Azarnia: Terrain is a non-traditional exhibition space that encourages artists to take risks, which gave me permission to experiment. Luminous functions as a distillation of my painting practice.  Everything I value about painting and am looking to express is there – the passage of time, the intersection of abstraction and representation, a conversation with art history and the importance of light.  But the painting process has been deconstructed and reconfigured into something new.

JS: How does the work explore the themes of memory and experience?

KA: I’m interested in the way memory and experience function together – how we experience something and construct memories based on that experience.   Much like the way a viewer experiences a work of art, our relationship to the construct of memory is fluid and malleable.  My practice often serves as a meditation on notions of change and impermanence.  Everything – our experiences, memories, you and I – are in a continual state of flux.  I attempt to embody this through the shifting visual experience of the piece and the materiality, including fluid pours of acrylic and delicate muslin fabric. The figurative imagery I use is pulled from an archive of my own photos, and is based on personal memory as well as those of family and friends.

JS: How does your background as a painter inform this installation?  

KA: For me there is a slowness to the process of painting.  My paintings tend to be built up in layers, washes, and marks over a period of time.  Much like the experience of making art, when we commit to looking at and experiencing an artwork over time, our relationship to it shifts and changes creating a deeper, more meaningful experience.

JS: What kinds of feedback are you getting from visitors? 

KA: I wanted this work to be generous and accessible.  By day, the non-objective color fields offer viewers the experience of color.  If the viewer devotes more time, and is patient enough to watch the piece shift during dusk over about a half hour period, they are rewarded with a completely different yet fleeting experience of the piece.  It’s been great to see people’s curiosity and enthusiasm about the piece.

JS: Is there anything else you would like to mention?

KA: I think it’s important to note all of the materials used to fabricate the installation were completely ordinary.  Muslin, simple lighting, and hardware were sourced from fabric and home hardware stores.  I was interested in making something uncanny and extraordinary out of the everyday.  There is no complicated technology.  The piece is self-evident in that all of the parts are visible.  Ultimately it’s about careful looking, perception, innovation and wonder.

Luminous is on view at Terrain Exhibitions (704 Highland Avenue, Oak Park) through May 28. 

John Seed

John Seed is a professor of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California. Seed has written about art and artists for Arts of Asia, Art Ltd., Catamaran, Harvard Magazine, International...