Sarah Maline: Introduction

Juliet’s Room brings together three interwoven bodies of work. Over the past decade Karelsen has developed an idiosyncratic personal lexicon springing from very different working processes: close, almost obsessive observation of nature and familiar objects, the eccentric repurposing of images by other artists, and bursts of expressionistic abstraction. What unites the work in Juliet’s Room, along with her unique vision and humor, is physical and psychological intimacy and attention to surfaces as ornamental overlays of charged emotion, family history, and private memory.

We enter and leave Juliet’s Room through a procession of needlework lichen “paintings” that writhe and dance or sit in stolid silence as their colors burst and wane. Karelsen studies each tiny plot in minute detail, a record of an intense encounter between the artist and the lichen, mosses, fungi, flowers and ferns inhabiting each diminutive stage. To the artist they represent resilience and the persistence of life. Her dense, immersive process of documentation forms a counterpoint to the delicate rubbings-on-paper of her Oma’s gloves. 

The exhibition is grounded in The Apartment, an installation recording Karelsen’s encounters with the sad and beautiful residue of her family’s life as she emptied her parents’ Manhattan apartment, her childhood home. Karelsen selects a few pieces of comfortably worn furniture—her mother’s mirrored vanity, her parents’ matching chairs, the tiny embroidered child-chair that she and her sister shared to stand as repositories of memory.

A sometimes delicious, sometimes poignant tension between surface and deeper emotions suffuses the exhibition. The best example may be the artist’s portraits of her parents at different times in their lives--Ursula, in a quirky needlepoint composition suspended above her vanity (inside cover), is young and glamorous while Frank lives and dies in extreme old age (page 16) in a series of gouache sketches in the Sympathy Series, reflected across the gallery in the vanity mirror.  

As Carl Little points out in his essay, the lovingly embroidered plastic pill bottles are particularly striking. While the original objects are not present, in the glossy, color-saturated threaded surfaces Karelsen creates alluring portraits of the little receptacles that are then echoed in a separate series of pale gouache images of the same bottles. The pill bottles become keenly tangible despite their physical absence. In the same way there is a call and response through time between the real porcelain figurines on Ursula’s vanity and their gouache apparitions hanging above the parents’ paired chairs.

A deeper history resonates through the artist’s close attention to the family’s everyday possessions. Karelsen’s mother escaped from Germany with her parents in 1935; the artist’s great-grandmother stayed behind in Münsingen and was sheltered by neighbors until finally captured and killed by the Nazis. One local child in particular brought her food in exchange for small gifts—things like a lace shawl and small pieces of jewelry and cutlery. In 2007, Karelsen traveled with her mother and her own daughter Elysia to Germany to see the donation of these small gifts to the Laupheim Museum of Christian and Jewish History and to meet Elizabeth, the little girl, now elderly lady, who protected her great-grandmother. 

Joyous Cosmology? borrows its title from philosopher Alan Watts’ popular 1962 account of his experiments with hallucinogens and his unconventional interpretation of Zen to arrive at the view of ego and consciousness as a “transparent abstraction.” Karelsen lifts characters from the fantastical, violent stories of late ukiyo artists Hokusai and Yoshitoshi and the intensely imagined scenarios of Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal and sets them in a coolly ornamental world composed of Katz, Warhol, and O’Keefe flowers. 

In Kiyohime With Flowers and Children we see the vengeful princess rising above a flat garden inhabited by Darger’s naked warrior children. Famous from the Kabuki dance play Musume Dōjōji, Princess Kiyo, maddened with rage at the handsome priest who denies her love, wrings her hair as she emerges dripping from crossing a river, beginning a magnificent transformation into a serpent. In the original 1865 woodblock print by Yoshitoshi sourced by Karelsen, water streams from her body, the river froths at her feet, and the pattern of her kimono turns to scales. In her crazed determination the original audience could fully imagine the climax of the story as the serpent, burning with hatred, immolates the priest as he cowers under an enormous melting temple bell.  But here, in Joyous Cosmology?, the surface is pale and transparent, the rich colors and violence of the original images is drained away, leaving what the artist describes as “new, sometimes cryptic, often symbolic, sometimes humorous narratives that comment on their place in the flatness where they find themselves--art and ideas from the east and the west interplay to create a pop, mainstream, and offhand consciousness.”

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