Essay by Lily Wei, written for the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship, 2010
Rhapsodies in Scrap
Around three years ago, Michael Kareken looked out from his studio window and saw a mountain of cardboard at the Rock-Tenn recycling plant across the street. It had always been there—or replenished regularly, one like it had—but he never paid much attention to it before. That day was different. He had been painting portraits for quite some time—intimate, expressive depictions of family and friends—and aware he was nearing the end of a cycle. Satisfying as it had been, he needed a change. The man-made mountain suddenly caught his eye. He went down to investigate and was immediately hooked, fascinated by its unexpected formal beauty. He then visited Eureka Cycling as well as other local waste management centers, astonished by the visual splendor of the heaped discards that formed the underside of daily life in contemporary America.
Kareken had considered landscape as a possible theme but was not at all interested in traditional pastoral formulations. He found them unconvincing and nostalgic in today’s grittier, more complicated world. The recycling centers, however, offered him an infrequently painted side of the urban landscape to explore, one rife with socio-political-ecological-economic implications. As his paintings focused on the remains of our profligate consumption, Kareken became much more sensitized to environmental issues and the need to conserve our resources, curb our wastage, rethink our expenditure and improve our technologies.
Asking himself different questions about the process of painting, about form and content, Kareken altered his working habits. For instance, he began to paint from photographs he had taken while on-site. He was trained to work from life but discovered he liked working from photos, reveling in the details they provided, details that he might otherwise have dismissed or overlooked. At first, he scrupulously adhered to the images captured as documents but soon began to make aesthetic adjustments. He focused on certain images such as gridded bales of crushed paper or the huge magnet that picked up scrap steel and made multiple versions of them, gorgeous atmospheric drawings and paintings that suggest Tiepolo in the flamboyance of their brushwork and lush palette, as realistic objects cascaded into flurries of abstract gesture. But it was Edwin Dickinson he cited. Dickinson, he said, was a realist but incorporated accident into his paintings. “I want to be able to interrupt my process, to interrogate it and see what happens.”
His most recent work concentrates on glass bottles and broken dishes in an all-over composition that suggests a kind of light-filled, dazzled impressionism. One painting (title, date?) from this series depicts china fragments covered in frost, the color muted, almost monochromatic, inflected by just a few bright hues. They reverberate between realism and abstraction, a formal construction underlying the representational, their painterliness and deftly applied brushstrokes less agitated, more tautly vibrant. There is a perspectival shift as he zooms in from a broad view of the scene to close-ups of the specific objects. Some of this new work, although all over, have a subtle X configuration and the composition radiates from the center, the bottles there clearly delineated. As the eye moves toward the edges, however, the images become blurred, more abstract. Drips are left to mark the process, to insist on paint’s materiality. Kareken is not proposing an exercise in trompe-l’oeil; instead, his narratives reveal, in addition to its subject matter, something about the physiology and psychology of perception and the nature of painting.
For the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts last year, Kareken made a remarkable 9 x 14 foot painting called Scrap Bottles (2009), his largest to date. In it, he reversed his position on several other painting strategies. For instance, he drew the bottles in pencil onto the canvas beforehand, something he had never done in the past, preferring to find the painting through the process. He projected the image onto the prepared canvas and painted each object clearly, one after the other, another first. At the MIA, he could view the painting from a distance and realized that from afar, it resembled a photograph but became more painterly, more abstract as the viewer drew nearer, the way a Chuck Close painting, or a Velázquez, coalesces and dissolves, shifting from paint to image and back again. It was another direction to explore. Kareken has been much influenced by Baroque painting, by chiaroscuro, a light and dark structuring that anchored his previous paintings. In these works, there was no such distinction. His resolutions had to offer different readings across the more or less immersive surfaces, one that was color-based, more kaleidoscopic. In the past, Kareken was not as comfortable with color as he was with black and white but that, too, has changed..
Kareken’s beautifully modulated charcoal and conte crayon drawings are magnificent evidence of his mastery of chiaroscuro and colorful in a subtle way. For him, drawing is more flexible, he said, built up section by section. Frequently executed on mylar, he can wet the black pigment with water to get a sweep of nuanced gray and an edge that appears and disappears, the form in flux, circumscribed and released. With their ravishing transitions, they recall Rembrandt, Piranesi, Corot, some flooded with light, others deeply shadowed, mysterious. He has, somehow, managed to sanctify a dumping ground, hallow its equipment and products.
“I find the sites exhilarating,” Kareken says. The magnet is balletic and he admires the surprising delicacy of the metal claw that can pick up a coke can without denting it. One of the loveliest phenomena he describes is the cardboard mountain. Hosed down regularly in the summer to prevent spontaneous combustion, the water evaporates to envelope it in a luminous, rainbow mist. This is, perhaps, the primary function of an artist: to present the familiar, the disregarded in a riveting, persuasive way, to bring attention to it. The new work of Michael Kareken–his oddly glamorous urban landscapes that function as contemporary memento mori, with their theme of decay, renewal and reconciliation, their salutary agenda of reclamation and redemption–does precisely that.
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Essay by Tamatha Sopinski-Perlman, written for the brochure for “Scrap”, a solo exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2009
Alas! How little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape! —Henry David Thoreau
A piece of tape on the floor of Michael Kareken’s studio indicates the distance from which visitors to the MAEP gallery will encounter his new epic oil painting, Scrap Bottles. At 9-by-14 feet, the painting is intended to fill an entire wall of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition (MAEP) gallery, essentially transforming it into a vertiginous cascade of glass. The perspective is tilted forward, causing the illusion that the pile of glass is falling into the viewer’s space, just as the residue of human consumption spills into the painting’s foreground. The viewer’s eye is unable to grasp a focal point while it travels across the canvas gathering details of the detritus—empty bottles bearing labels such as Newman’s Own, Seagram’s, Grain Belt, and the shards and bits of glass that did not survive the journey intact. The painting seems in a constant state of transition. Dazzling reflections of light boldly leap off of the canvas. With each step forward, the viewer feels the form and mass of the bottles giving way to the gesture and energy of Kareken’s brushstrokes.
“Scrap” is at once an ode to consumer culture and a snapshot of society, with the garbage heap as the great equalizer. Glistening beer bottles once advertised on mammoth billboards now lie forgotten, their promise consumed. Family dinners are conscribed to memory; only their refuse remains. Reality trumps the dream in these paintings, but there is something lovely in the cast-offs. In Scrap Bottles, the surfaces of the glass surfaces create a kaleidoscope of colored reflections. The fluctuations between form and light push the rendering to the brink of abstraction.
“I’ve always liked how the images are forming and reforming in paintings by artists like [John Singer] Sargent,” Kareken said. “They are in flux; the painting captures gesture and movement.” Like the Abstract Expressionist Willem De Kooning, Kareken loves the gesture of the brushstroke, but is not interested in giving up the form. De Kooning’s 1950 portrait of New York, Excavation, offers a perfect example. Half obscured in abstraction, but full of energy that pulls the viewer across and around the canvas, the painting—in fact, the very paint itself—is injected with the energy, grime, and music of the city.
Scrap Bottles captures an era too, infused with anxiety over the size and mass of a city’s cast-offs. The details are engrossing and we can easily see the familiar forms of bottles and brands emerge. “Its very democratic,” Kareken said. “It naturally becomes a reflection of real life. Everyone can see themselves in it.” But it is also disconcerting to realize what people leave in their wake. The journeys of our lives and our stuff march in endless circles of death and rebirth. The painting is a city unto itself, a jumble of cultures, trends, economics, consumption, and habit.
Other paintings in this exhibition evoke comparable feelings of both melancholy and awe. Scrap Engines (2009) is a curving terrain of bent and broken machine parts, a monochromatic study of rust, metal, and mud. The crunched metal, often reminiscent of bodies and limbs, leaves a queasy feeling of a violent car crash. But within this destruction there is beauty. Compressed Oil Drums (2009) shows orderly stacks of cubes, each with a perfect circle on its end faces. Shades of brown are punctuated by reds and pinks, and a few stray circles lie in dirty water that shimmers and ripples on the canvas. Kareken’s painterly strokes evoke the Excavation paintings George Bellows made during the building of New York City’s Penn station, which captured the landscape of the Industrial Revolution. Both artists capture the drama and stark splendor of a new American scene in which the sublime is replaced by the artifacts of human intervention.
Kareken’s studio window overlooks the Rock-Tenn recycling plant, the comings and goings of which offer him a distraction during long workdays. His earlier paintings in this series are more intimate. Small, atmospheric landscape views, such as the 12-by-30-inch Water Cannon; Paper Recycling Plant (2007), suggest ties to the setting’s pastoral past. Water Cannon likens the watery mist of a large firehose to that of a waterfall in a Hudson River School painting, set against a pile of paper instead of a mountainscape. These calm paintings portray the piles of refuse as a natural part of the environment. In River View: Metal Scrap Yard (2007) a valley created between two scrap-metal hills opens onto a scenic view of the Mississippi River with trees and a house visible on the opposite bank. In these early paintings Kareken was an outside observer. But as his relationship with the subject deepened, his scale grew, he zoomed in, and his brush loosened. Magnet (2009) is a mass of swinging energy whose loosely painted heft dissolves into flying debris and dripping paint at the edges of the canvas. Here, instead of documenting the endlessly shifting piles of refuse as they mysteriously work their way in and out the facility, Kareken captured the operation’s noisy, roiling movement and mass.
“Scrap” provides an afterlife to human refuse. In a time when “going green” is applauded and recycling is unquestioned, Kareken offers a perspective that considers the cycles of life, from the past to the future. “Scrap” acknowledges the beauty and fragility of decay, and the transience of value. Everything moves on. From a distance Kareken’s piles are anonymous. But up close, his details reveal that human life is always changing, always shifting, and continually surprising.
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