Juliet Karelsen: Acts of Grace and Enhancement

by Carl Little

If memory serves, I first took notice of Juliet Karelsen’s work when she produced a series of humorous but also rather unsettling self-portraits in the late 1990s. I asked her for slides and used them in a talk on contemporary portraiture.

In 2004, I reviewed Karelsen’s solo show in this gallery and was struck by a whole new vision. Imaginary landscapes were inhabited by biomorphic shapes that appeared to float, sprout, and reproduce. Her ability to invent a “kind of parallel universe” in her paintings appealed to my sense of the surreal.

Over the years, I kept an eye open for Karelsen’s work, wondering where she was headed next. Then in 2016, a string of exhibitions came along: at the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, Engine in Biddeford, the Maine Jewish Museum and Speedwell Projects in Portland, the latter space launched last year by the photographer and alternative inauguration arranger Jocelyn Lee. 

Karelsen has been busy over the past several years, creating a bounty of new art. She continues to prefer to work in series, latching onto a subject and then riffing and rolling. Much of her recent work was prompted by an act of personal and emotional grace: clearing out her father Frank Karelsen’s New York City apartment after his death in 2013 at age 86. 

In one grouping, Karelsen renders various tchotchkes found among her father’s possessions. These figurines—a girl with grapes, a cat, a clown—are rescued from mawkishness by a delicate use of gouache. Likewise, crayon rubbings of gloves worn by the artist’s grandmother Oma (25 pairs were found in an apartment closet) are not in the least bit sentimental. I would argue that this apparitional evening wear has a resonance equal to Irving Penn’s beat-up gloves. 

More distressing, if you will, are small embroidered representations of white-capped plastic pill containers. The colorful hoop samplers lend what the artist calls “a sort of ironic reverence” to these ubiquitous bottles. Never have these containers of life-saving and sometimes mind-warping pills been presented in a more affectionate manner. 

A different kind of irony is found in Karelsen’s gouache portraits of her father and the family members and hospice and home-health aides who took care of him in his final months. The “Sympathy” series plays on greeting cards, in size—5 by 7 inches—and in palette, the background of each a warm pink. Yet these simple likenesses are genuine tributes—and memorable, especially the images of Mr. Karelsen on his death bed. 

Elsewhere, Karelsen explores trompe-l’oeil to present objects from the apartment that embody her family. She plays on the illusion of their reality: they exist but they don’t exist—“None of it is really tangible or everlasting,” the artist explains, a world view that she ties to the Buddhist ideas of groundlessness and impermanence. To build on this concept, Karelsen quotes a line from the Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia song “Stella Blue”: “All the years combine/they melt into a dream…There’s nothixng you can hold for very long.” Her passion for the Grateful Dead is expressed through a colorful needlepoint portrait of Garcia, the leader of the band. 

One of the trompe-l’oeil pieces is a depiction of Karelsen, her sister Eva and their parents Frank and Ursula done in a faux-folk manner, the four figures dressed in what might be Austrian peasant clothing. The original ceramic piece, which hung at the entry to the apartment, came from a mail order company, which customized the figures according to the hair, skin, and eye color specified by the customer. Karelsen also painted replicas of her father’s custom-fitted tennis racket and custom-made coat hanger—a beloved man represented by objects that in part defined him. 

Karelsen is a master appropriator, be it her “translations” of art postcards or her rendering of an Oskar Kokoschka landscape for a local production of The Sound of Music. In her “Joyous Cosmology” series, started in 2013, she combines imagery from the work of Alex Katz, Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Henry Darger with that of several Japanese artists, among them, Tawaraya Sotatsu, Katsushika Hokusai, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, and Suzuki Harunobu. 

These delicately painted East-West mash-ups are, indeed, full of joy and cosmic relevance. One of my favorites, Skeleton Ghost with Flowers and Children, mingles images from Hokusai, Katz and Darger in a manner that makes uncanny sense—death, flowers, and childhood fantasies all in one.  

The “Lichen” series came out of a stitching workshop taught by Rachel Meginnes at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in 2015. While in residence Karelsen became fascinated by elements of nature in the school’s wooded surroundings and began riffing on them using embroidery floss on linen. These horizontal miniatures, each one no bigger than a pack of cards, resemble landscapes. Some resemble tiny Abstract Expressionist compositions.

In my recent review in Art New England of Karelsen’s show at Speedwell, I concluded that the exhibition reconfirmed the artist’s “engaging take on the world, at once personal and peculiar.” I’d like to add, after the fact, the following: personal as in full of life and love and peculiar as in singular and straight-out enchanting.