Essay: Karla Siegel Paintings at Artspace Liberti

Untitled, 2011, Karla Siegel

Below is an essay I was commissioned to write for friend and fellow studio mate, Karla Siegel. The show just opened up this past Friday; please go see it and support not only her work but Artspace Liberti in Fishtown. I think this is some of the best stuff I've written recently...

It's a matter of belief then. Do you believe that what this picture is showing you is true; that it truly exists or once existed? Do you believe that the artist is being sincere in their motive, approach, and depiction? When light, which is a major problem (in the sense of an experiment or challenge) in Karla Siegel's work is invited, even encouraged, to have its way, the question must be asked: what do you believe? It's probably too philosophical a beginning for most of us, but nevertheless underlying all vision lies the question of belief. And when an artist such as Siegel, doubly a painter, invites light into the mix as powerfully as she has, the questions crop up.
    Light makes painting not only beautiful, but also confusing; it imparts order as well as chaos. Take an example from art history; say, Impressionism. This movement was brief as far as movements go, but at its heart it was interested in the same thing painting has been interested in all along: the capturing of an essence. Impressionist painters went about it by, as some critics spit at the time, "flinging” their paint-pots at canvas. Despite the ironclad acceptance now of Impressionism, these critics were not far from the truth. These painters – Monet, Pissarro, et al – were often working so ardently to capture and encapsulate the play of light creating and destroying form, they nearly were flinging paint in their zeal to stop light and time in their tracks. (Of course flinging with intent, and without, makes all the difference here). Monet, for example, was so doggedly after the enigma of light, that he did several scenes – one of the most haunting and well-known being the haystacks – over and over, in this light and that, one day after the other. Siegel's painting is rooted directly in the traditions of painting: she says as much herself. Portraiture and still-life are the two expressions of painting that are most obvious here. But, as mentioned before, she is most deeply rooted in the more primal – more human, you might even say – painterly instinct, that of pursuing and subduing the essential element of light. But how exactly – and how does Siegel call us to belief through her paint?
    One method is layering. Time and light have been companions throughout the history of art – one example has been mentioned already. In some cases, the artist attempts to stop time, or at least express the effect of a set time period of light upon paint. In other cases, time is less linear and more layered, something like the difference between a cupcake and a layer cake. The former is heat, time and materials all running parallel in one take; the latter is again the product of heat, time and materials running the same way, but then separated and stacked to create an entirely different result – and reaction. Siegel's portraits are the layer cake: we see different time + light creations piled or layered upon each other. And the technique and perspective reiterate this: in several paintings the face comes up close, very close to the painting surface, becoming muddled and thick in its execution; in others the outlines of shoulder, neck, and head are recognizable, but they are cut from the up-close detail of another face, like a small profile snipped out of a larger image from a magazine. Another of the portraits has a pulled effect, not unlike taffy, that moves the figure up into the blocks of light suggesting a large studio window. The figure, though owing a bit to Bacon, is more calm than his tortured, drawn figures. Even here though, one intuitively picks up on the layers of reaction to light that Siegel has percieved, and subsequently sandwiched into the picture.    
    A second tactic of Siegel's to subduing the enigma of light can be seen in her still-life-inspired abstracts, which suggest not only fountains, bouquets and blooms; but also driveway fireworks and bright, smoky explosions. Earlier mention was made of the action of light through paint at times creating confusion or chaos. In the still-lifes, Siegel is not actually trying to confuse or unsettle the viewer; rather she, like any good artist or scientist, is attempting to solve a problem – and here one problem is fresh depiction. And the approach chosen is to de-clarify; to make indistinct; to obfuscate. But why? One cannot really know; often even the artist can't articulate their own reasoning. Here's a shot, however: consider the full-on, noonday sun. It is blazing; crippling; impossible to look upon fully without pain and damage. If one made an attempt to do so, it would literally blind you – just as omniscience would implode our understanding. In other words, humans are incapable of the full absorption of light's power; of full absorption of worldly knowledge – we are too corporeal. But...what of those hazy and foggy days when the sun is obscured; covered by a scrim of moisture, smoke or steam? Now, the sun – the full sun – can be gazed upon with no damage! Its spherical contour can be made out through the haze – one element of the sun's existence does not escape us. In the case of Siegel's still-lifes, the full knowledge of the scene or source would not actually be physically injurious to us – from human to human, pure knowledge and vision do not function that way. However, without Siegel's haze of paint; scrim of manipulation; we would be stymied by too much – too much information; too much direct representation – we'd not be asked to do any work. As with the full-on sun, we'd be blinded by our own visual callousness. But through obfuscation and haziness, Siegel tells us less, and the painting teaches us more. And as with the hazy sun, one element at least does not escape us. This is the part of the basic paradox of art that Siegel so adeptly and consistently dips into.
    Finally, Siegel captures light by doing exactly that: collecting it, largely in the impasto of her portraits, but also more subtly in the delicate washes and glazes in the still-life abstracts. This occurrence came while looking at them closely: the impasto, lain horizontally, vertically, diagonally this way and that, captures, gathers, and intensifies the cast light from sources both natural and artificial, much like a screen or colander captures grit or grains on its grid, creating independent patterns and intensifying the light's power in particular areas, as well as modulating the surrounding and underlying colors. This uncovers an approach to the original question of belief: this collecting and emitting of light –as nearly physical as is possible without a filament or diode – underlines emphatically the base materiality of the work. Thus an utterly material attribute of the painting – the impasto paint with its furrows, hills and dales – is capturing and enlarging the effect of a highly immaterial entity: light. Here is where the enigmas might clash. But because of this sudden kiss of the material and immaterial, we find ourselves able to answer to a point, perhaps timorously, perhaps boldly: "I believe – but help me with my unbelief!"

Timothy Gierschick
January, 2012

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