Jason Karolak and I spoke over beers in his studio one day during the never-ending winter. A surprise snowfall had softened an already quiet Sunday afternoon in Greenpoint, on a street that dead-ends at the narrow waterfront separating Brooklyn from Long Island City.
Karolak was in the process of preparing the surfaces of several large canvases, so they, too, were a landscape of white. His layers of carefully troweled and smoothed primer make the surface feel more like a polished panel than a textured fabric. Yet Karolak’s abstractions, composed with a vocabulary of elemental forms, geometries, coils, networks, and labyrinthine linear passages, never feel overly refined.
The finished paintings are tight, athletic balls of energy, with loud color combinations and facture that reveal a skilled but rugged human doing and un-doing. Nothing is over-shared – his paintings resist any easy unpacking of references or meaning, but neither are they cool and distant. They are records of the eccentric handwriting and kinesthetics of a specific person: moving and stopping; interrupted and propelled through space.
Jason Karolak was born in 1974 in Rochester, Michigan, and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He received his BFA from Pratt Institute and his MFA from School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He teaches at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He is represented by McKenzie Fine Art, New York, where he had his second solo exhibition in the winter of 2015. His work is on view now through May 10, 2015, at Novella Gallery, New York, in a group exhibition, “Full Tilt,” curated by John Yau. In addition, a solo exhibition of Karolak’s work opens May 14 at Robischon Gallery, Denver, Colorado.
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Jennifer Samet: You are originally from Michigan. What was your experience there and how did you end up in art school at Pratt Institute?
Jason Karolak: I grew up in Rochester, Michigan, a rural area outside of Detroit, and spent a lot of time outdoors. My family appreciated art, although they didn’t necessarily think that becoming an artist was a viable option. My mother was a high school English teacher. For high school, I had the opportunity to go Cranbrook, which was designed by Eliel Saarinen, down to all the furniture and silverware. There were sculptures in the middle of the woods, and a huge weaving studio. Saarinen’s wife Loja made all the textiles. It was a little bit like Josef and Anni Albers; it had a workshop-Bauhaus feel.
I moved to Brooklyn in 1994 to study at Pratt Institute. That was lifealtering, in terms of my exposure to the urban environment. My interest in bright color, fragments of the ephemeral everyday, and sound and music came out of being in Fort Greene in the mid-1990s. I was playing basketball (in the parks and on the team at Pratt), listening to hip hop, and painting. Ideas of sampling and fragmentation were part of the conversations we were having.
I studied painting with Howard Buchwald, who came out of the generation of abstract painters working in the 1970s through the 1990s, when that language had moved out of the center. African-American, female, and gay artists were using abstraction and painting in new ways. Many of them, like Mary Heilmann, Jack Whitten, and Dan Christensen, informed my interest in an imperfect geometry. I was also studying color with Herbert Beerman, who had studied with Josef Albers at Yale. He motivated a voracious appetite for color in me that continues to today.
JS: For graduate school, you went to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Who did you work with there?
JK: Gaylen Gerber and Susanne Doremus were very important. There was a rigor about the nuts and bolts of painting. Along with conceptual and theoretical issues, professors were also asking, “How good is this painting? Does this painting work?” People like Jim Lutes would come in your studio and say, “This is shitty paint. You need to get better paint.”
Michelle Grabner got me thinking about early childhood language and the educational ideas of Fredrich Froebel, because there is a set of elemental components in my work, like a line or a simple shape. Richard Rezac would spend time giving you a read on each piece. He would say, “These things take a long time. You might come to this ten years from now.” He was influential in thinking about how meaning arrives over time and filters into the work.
JS: In the last several years you have made two distinct bodies of work – small paintings and larger-scale paintings. The two groups utilize different painterly processes, although in your most recent exhibition, the distinctions between the two were lessened. How and why did you start working like this?
JK: In about 2005, as a side project, I started making little paintings, just to play around with color. In a big painting there is the pressure of spending a couple months on it and having it either fail or succeed. The small paintings allowed me to mess around. I would put them on my lap, or on a table close to me. The marks were packed close together; the compression in those paintings mirrored how close I was to them.
The big paintings were a physical activity of using my arm in relation to a surface bigger than my body. At some point the goals of the two bodies of work were very different. But more recently, they have migrated back to each other.
JS: You have mentioned physicality a few times, and that you played basketball. Do sports and athleticism affect or relate to how you think about your process?
JK: Yes, I was an athlete growing up. I’ve always been attracted to painters that have an athletic physicality, like Albert Oehlen, Chris Martin, Willem de Kooning, and even Philip Guston. Guston’s is more lumbering or mushy, but still has that presence of the drawn mark. I see athleticism in the work of Mary Heilmann and Christopher Wool.
Sports are full of a tension between the organic and the geometric. There are boundaries and lines that are completely rigid, but bodies move around within that space. They move within that structure in an irregular and flowing way. I like that tension. I want that drawn fluidity, but also awkwardness. A filled-in shape can obscure; a drawn mark reveals so much.
In our lives today, we often have to figure out ways to consciously be present in our physical bodies. The engagement of the body is an important issue in relation to technology and media and how we process images. We look at tons of images in a flat way, compressed in scale. When you see large paintings in person, it is a very different experience.
JS: Although you have been included in a group exhibition about networks and grids in painting, I notice that you tend to create discrete forms more than overall fields, especially in the big paintings. Is that accurate?
JK: I want to have one form in the painting at the end. It may have multiple elements or a network-like feel. But I still want it to read as a thing, albeit an abstract thing, as opposed to a completely allover field with no hierarchy.
The grid is obviously an important modernist trope all through the 20th Century and contemporary painting. But I want there to be irregularity and inconsistency, too, which references the body. Even in Agnes Martin’s paintings, I see her body and read them as physical.
The forms in my paintings are distillations of the process, and an internal logic is created through color and drawing. It is specific to each painting. They start in fragmented fields of color and line. And then I put several of these elements back together, building something new.
JS: When you look at your work, do you recall specific references or personal experiences that motivated them? Are the forms associated with objects, in your mind?
JK: I would describe them as ultimately personal forms that come out of the process of drawing and translating drawing ideas into the paintings. I want my experience of the physical world to find its way into the work. I am pulling on things I have seen, experiences I have had, but it’s not really recognizable to the viewer, per se. It is embedded in a more private way.
Even though the forms do not explicitly reference something, they are still going to evoke something for the viewer. Is it open or closed, or spreading out? Some of them use a line that meanders through space. That allows the viewer to travel that route. I try to build the paintings in a way that the viewer can take them apart and reconstruct them, and think about relationships that were made. That has the potential to slow the viewer down.
JS: The way you speak of the work sounds more experiential. Has phenomenological philosophy influenced you? Can you speak about some of your influences?
JK: I think about how we experience a work of art through our bodies and through the four senses besides vision. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Nature,” he posits the idea that we experience the world and phenomena outside of ourselves, but essentially, we complete it through how we process it. That kind of interaction is similar to how Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed a phenomenological philosophy, although Emerson was writing much earlier.
Transcendentalism is a particularly American philosophy. It has a certain individualistic goal of finding meaning and a higher connection to experience and the world around you.
Stuart Davis, to this day, is my favorite painter. Along with others of his generation, like Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and Marsden Hartley, he was responding to abstract painting from Europe. Davis’s brand of abstraction was sort of impure. He was trying to find a way to fold abstraction into an American experience and think of it in less purely non-objective terms. I like how he took really low things and mixed them in. He’s really the first Pop artist, way before Pop Art became a term.
I also like the idea that Davis was a serious painter, and he was bad in some places. He wasn’t always so masterful. That is a very American idea – not to be as classically trained, not to be as elegant, not part of a long, deep tradition. You see that in Pollock too. He is so bad, often. There is something real about that. On the other side, de Kooning is also one of my favorite artists – a great painter, in his drawing, color and space. Next to Pollock, the facility is just oozing through de Kooning’s body.
Maybe there is a metaphor of humility in that. It’s not overly tasteful, it’s not overly classical; it is not elegantly executed at every step. I want there to be a certain crudeness in my work; I want there to be awkwardness; I want the flow of line to be interrupted.
JS: You use some intense, saturated, and almost colloquial color combinations. Where do your palettes come from?
JK: My friend Caleb DeJong was saying the colors in my paintings remind him of New York City bodegas. They are colors from things that we see in the everyday. There is really rich stuff to look everywhere. There is phenomena and beauty around us even if we are not in the Rocky Mountains.
There is a long tradition of fear of color, especially in Western painting. I remember professors in graduate school telling me that color is a problem in abstract painting. I was challenged by that, thinking of color as decorative or overly seductive, or something that we see more in the Non-Western world.
I will come up with a palette that has between four and eight colors. The color sensation usually comes from something I’ve seen – signage, graffiti on the street, a natural element in the landscape or cityscape, or another painting. I’ll drop that down as a starting point and begin drawing onto that.
One of the reasons why black has become so important is that it has allowed me to erase the super-saturated color that I do use. All the drawing isn’t just cumulative. I’m also erasing and taking drawing away.
I consider how the colors are working together as I am finding the painting and the structure. I think of it like making a soup. You put a bunch of ingredients into the pot. As the soup reduces, you find the flavor, its body, and the right combination of ingredients. Then it comes together…or it doesn’t, and it’s a really bad soup. Then you throw the painting out!
JS: Ha. I do notice you raise the possibility of failed paintings, as well as erasure and revision. Some of these are antithetical to trends in contemporary painting, which is more about provisionality, and less about slow consideration, taking away and re-making.
JK: I made a lot of work from 1996 to 2002 that was about deconstructing painting, and making a painting that was correlative to this failed state of painting. At some point, I wanted to challenge myself to make something that was sincere and built out of my experience.
There is an impulse with some painters that it is not cool to care, to fight for it – that you shouldn’t make overly labored work, because that would be old-fashioned. I am interested in this question of provisionality that Raphael Rubinstein has written about. I agree with a lot of this. Excess labor, work just for work’s sake is meaningless. But on the other side, it is not just all good either. You make good moves and you make bad moves. You can’t just start from this point of failure. I am into slowness. And I spend more time looking at the paintings than painting on them.
I think about making art and the studio as a practice, and how that sustains itself over a long period of time. How am I going to make the work in ten or twenty years? How does that flow in the studio happen? Where does the information come in? Where do I get the color from, etc.?
Eighty percent of it is that I am just trying to make the painting. But I know I need the stuff. So how do I get that moving into the work and being effective and meaningful and rich? You have to respond to what is happening. You can’t just set up a no-lose process of creating a painting that cannot fail. You have to go for it. Something has to be at stake.