Artist Carole Caroompas, whose large-scale, layered paintings mined literature, film, myth, and popular media, died on July 31 at the age of 76. The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, according to her brother, John Caroompas.
In her tightly composed canvases, Caroompas incorporated a mix of high and low visual culture to explore gender roles and power dynamics. She drew from art history, novels such as Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, movies, rock music, magazines, and advertisements to both reflect and subvert the way images construct identities and reinforce systems of dominance.
Although the surfaces of her paintings are painstakingly rendered and visually rich, each body of work began with months if not years of research. “She would become interested in a book or a movie, which would be cross-referenced with other pop culture things like music,” explained artist and dealer Cliff Benjamin, a close friend of Caroompas’s who showed her work at his gallery Western Project. “She dug into what she was fascinated by and obsessed with: things that existed on the periphery, people who didn’t follow the rules.”
The results were captivating and confrontational. “The work was too strong for the delicate palates,” art critic David Pagel told Hyperallergic. “It was abrasive, violent, and sexual. There was a viciousness, but it was also sweet, loving, and true. It didn’t hold anything back.”
In addition to painting, Caroompas delved into performance and music throughout her five-decade career. In a 1987 interview with writer Tosh Berman, she pointed to the roots of her unbounded creative curiosity. “I wanted to be an archaeologist, but my father decided that I wouldn’t make any money at that, so then I wanted to be a poet — we’re going downhill as you can see,” she joked, “and then I was going to be a writer, and then I ended up being a painter, and the music and the language and the painting all got thrown together.”
Caroompas was also a long-time educator, who taught at Otis College of Art & Design for over 30 years, where she created an Experimental Drawing class. “We weren’t expected to set ourselves in stone. We could let our hair down, make mistakes” artist Vincent Ramos, who studied with Caroompas before becoming her studio assistant, told Hyperallergic. With her jet-black hair, piercing blue eyes, and tattoo-covered arms, “Carole could be really intimidating, but when it came to that dynamic of teacher and student, she was very nurturing,” Ramos said.
She also impressed upon her students the discipline that an artist’s life required. “She worked every day that she wasn’t teaching, and taught that to her students,” artist Meg Cranston, the chair of the Fine Arts Department at Otis, told Hyperallergic in a conversation.
Carole Caroompas was born in Oregon City, Oregon, in 1946 but grew up in Newport Beach. She studied English at Cal State Fullerton and received her MFA from the University of Southern California in 1971. After graduating, she fell in with Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and other members of the Feminist Art Movement, but the post-minimalist work she was making then put her at odds with them. “I got beat up a lot, because my work was very formal, and modernism is always associated with the male gender,” she explained in a 2001 video interview.
She incorporated elements like glitter and lace into her abstractions: “Things that referenced either low culture or domesticity,” she says in the video. She staged performances that mixed spoken word with song, offering wry takes on relationships between men and women. As the 1980s progressed, she shifted towards the large, post-modern tableaux she is best known for.
Caroompas was part of a cadre of LA artists including Paul McCarthy, her classmate at USC, and Mike Kelley who emerged in the late 1970s and early ’80s, exploring abjection and uncomfortable themes in their punk-tinged works. “She was the OG of the downtown LA art scene,” Cranston says. “It was a big change from the Ferus [Gallery] scene. It was more diverse and had more misfits.”
Despite her consistent exhibition record, awards including a 1995 Guggenheim Fellowship, and enduring influence in Southern California, she never received the wide-reaching recognition of some of her contemporaries. She was a fiercely independent woman who did not mince words, polarizing characteristics in a refined, male-dominated milieu. “She was very candid about her opinions, which was a double-edged sword,” said Benjamin. “The art world is very polite. That doesn’t really fly.”
“The most punk thing about her was that she didn’t care to play by anyone’s rules,” says artist Mary Anna Pomonis, who befriended Caroompas in the late 1990s.
With her work as with her life, she pursued her own singular vision, one that did not pander to market fads or trends, but that inspired a deep admiration and respect from fellow artists, students, writers, and curators.
“She had arrived at her own painterly syntax … that was informed by history and very thoughtful …but it was not easy,” artist Tom Knechtel, a longtime friend of Caroompas’s, told Hyperallergic. “That is why perhaps she hasn’t received the attention she deserves. It is not easy work. It is spectacular work, but not easy.”