Virginia Billeaud Anderson
We were barely ten minutes into our drinks at Poison Girl when Christy Karll mentioned parallel universes. I knew at that moment I would investigate the art she is exhibiting in Journey Through the Trees and Beyond, which opens at the Jung Center on October 4. Over the course of several studio visits I learned the following:
Christina Karll, Symbol Transcendence, 2006, Latex and plaster on panel, 96” x 48”
Virginia Billeaud Anderson: You comfortably use words like “time travel” and “force fields.” What solar system did you come from?
Christina Karll: I know. I don’t fit in. I never did feel like I belong here.
VBA: Me too. Your Jung Center artist statement announces quite decisively that the drawings, paintings and three dimensional artworks originate primarily in your subconscious mind, so let’s discuss the hidden and unconscious sources of your art.
CK: There’s no other explanation for the narrow columnar forms that appear so frequently in my drawings and paintings. They are unfamiliar, and must come from an unknown part of my consciousness. It’s true they are partially inspired by Chinese landscape painting, in which tall rocky peaks summon nature’s energy, and which in Taoist belief express the vastness of the cosmos. And I’ve entertained the idea that the vertical marks continue to emerge because cells in my body hold memory patterns of past human existence in the Himalayas. It’s possible my imagination devised them to symbolize the big mystery at death.
VBA: According to the artist statement, recurring images of distorted stair cases also surface unconsciously.
CK: Yes, the deeper less accessible part of my mind must be their source, because I never consciously decide to walk up to a canvas and paint one more staircase. Some collectors believe the ascending “steps” express our journey to higher awareness, and surely expanded consciousness is a valid interpretation. But it’s significant that I painted Water Stairway after reading the The Tibetan Book of the Dead, from which I learned about the four colors the dead person sees in the Bardo state between death and rebirth. Those colors float through my painting. When my father was dying I urged him to focus his consciousness on the radiant white light described in the book.
Christina Karll, Water Stairway, 2011, Latex paint on panel, diptych, 96” x 96”
VBA: Christy, your familiarity with Jung’s essay on the Tibetan Book of the Dead got my attention. In the early seventies I first came to know the piece in which Jung articulated that the apparitions in the Bardo state, which are projections of our minds, are essentially part of a journey to meet the self, which corresponds precisely to the point at which we meet the divine. Jung stated, “One’s own consciousness is a radiant Godhead itself.”
CK: You can see how he familiarized himself with Hindu, Gnostic, Tao, and Christian traditions. I like that. And it interests me that although he was a scientist, he studied the occult. Did you know Jung participated in séances?
VBA: I can’t look at your images of staircases and strange waterfalls without thinking of Pat Steir. How familiar are you with her work?
CK: I’ve studied it closely. In fact I visited her studio on one of my trips to New York. It’s not that I purposefully set out to imitate her, but her art has been tremendously influential. Actually it was Gael Stack who introduced me to Steir’s work, years ago, she looked at my work, and came up and handed me a book on her, my art was similar, the images as well as the process, first the meditation, then the mark making, it was all familiar. Once I attended a lecture at the CAMH where Steir was part of a panel discussion, and I could actually see her aura, literally see it, not the other speakers’--only hers. I spoke to her afterwards and told her I saw her halo and she looked deep into my eyes, as if unsurprised by that.
VBA: Jerry Saltz described Steir’s paintings as “internally lit,” an apt summation of your paintings. You are surely aware that Steir believes an unseen force directs the pouring and removing of paint, it is done according to the universe’s rhythm.
CK: The pulsation guiding Steir is the chi, but when I studied this flow I learned that the correct word is “Qi” and it is pronounced “Ji.” Pat Steir was influenced by classical Chinese landscapes. Those landscapes represent a cosmic force, and mine do that, the animating force. My art is a meditation on energy.
Christina Karll, Untitled, 2013, Latex and plaster and conté pencil on panel, 60" x 48"
VBA: Do you practice meditation?
CK: Every day I stretch and just receive the energy. It’s a way of thanking the universe. Also for me, walking in the woods is meditation, as well as working in my studio. Once I’m in the zone, drawing or painting becomes a form of meditation. It could even be considered channeling. I often have music playing while working, and quite often I dance, I love to dance because it raises the energy. I move my body and redirect good energy and animation into the work, and also I think positive thoughts. It works, and it makes a difference. Jackson Pollock did a similar thing in the early part of his career when he borrowed ceremonial movements from Native American sand painting rituals to allow his unconscious mind to form mythic images. He was like a shaman, moving rhythmically around the painting to try to open up lines of communication between the supernatural and natural worlds. I remember reading that Giacometti also tried to inject mystical power into his work. He was interested in magic and alchemy. When I made large paintings for a restaurant commission they were on the floor of my studio, and I moved around them in a meditative way. It makes me feel as if I am part of the painting.
VBA: The image of bundled sticks is far out, admittedly the most perplexing of the repeated and unconscious motifs. By rendering it in bronze you seem to have elevated it to mythic status.
CK: Those bundled sticks have become a primary iconographical element in my art. The image first appeared in drawing in 1990, followed by a painting series, and then I created it in the three dimensional using bronze, which indicates to me it’s extremely important to my psyche, but I don’t know its meaning. On one level the biomorphic form voices my concern about humans harming the planet, while it more broadly signifies the universe’s connectedness. In the 1990 drawing Earth-patch Bundle I depicted the stick bundle floating in a mysterious landscape, it levitates in the tree tops and hovers in its own force field. By combining, layering and erasing the form it becomes ambiguous, and vanishes and reappears. Its wider significance which is not yet fully understood, not yet fully revealed to me, relates to quantum physics and the limits of time and space. I’m talking here about the nature of reality.
Christina Karll, Earth-patch Bundle, 1990, Pastel and conté pencil on paper, 58” x 64”
VBA: Mercy. We’re confronting the deep. This level of contemplation puts me in mind of Pascal’s admission that the silence of infinity frightened the pants off of him. The immensity of the unknown sent the scientist running back to church. Your stick bundle is a pictorial reference to extra dimensional reality. Do you associate it with your deceased sister’s essence?
CK: I certainly do.
VBA: Do you think she exists?
CK: Somewhere on another plane, in another dimension. Look, there are parallel universes, and they are right here! I actually began making art after my sister’s death, her death was the impetus for my art. She was the true artist, she was a great artist, it was so easy for her to create, and it is very difficult for me. I struggle constantly, like I am with this large Untitled, it’s going through so many phases. I’m sure I began making art to connect to her once I lost her, and it might sound silly, but at times I feel as if I’m channeling her. Every once in a while I say “Susan, I need some help here,” I do, I ask her for her help, to send me energy. If I could harness her creativity, her talent, I would be so good.
VBA: Leading physicists, Brian Greene, and the late Werner Heisenberg who won a Nobel Prize, would agree with your statement about parallel universes being right here. In their understanding of quantum physics, parallel universes exist alongside our own, and there are possibly eleven multiple dimensions curving through ours, which in my estimation calls for a radical revision of our beliefs about ultimate reality.
CK: This expanded view of reality is the reason I used the word “beyond” in my exhibition title. I’m trying to understand myself, as well as the mystical aspects of existence, through a wider investigation of quantum physics, philosophy, comparative religion, mythology and even ancient writing. My art is a journey to understanding my own deep inward mystery. Rothko did that. He was a visionary. When I saw the Rothko exhibition at the Tate I learned that he valued repetition, he believed that if an image was important enough to paint once, it should be done over again and again, like my bundled twigs. This was aligned with Jung who made it a rule to never let a figure or figures that he encountered leave until they had told him why they had appeared to him.
Christina Karll, Antler Mountain Chair, 2014 Mixed media, 36 x 22 x 24 inches
VBA: Even without knowledge of the biographical fact that you help Jane Goodall raise money to protect chimpanzee habitats, one “gets” your connection to animals, which is detectable in the art. Comment on the theme of animals.
CK: The bond with them is practically indescribable, it’s extremely deep. The animating force or consciousness that runs through everything is in them too, and I want to understand it. They are immensely mysterious. Animals interact without words, which seems advanced to me, there’s probably a lot there to enlighten us.
Look, I’m not a vegetarian. I eat meat. Several things are going on in works such as Antler Mountain Chair. For one, the antlers have a magical totemic quality. I’m also commenting on inhumane treatment in the way we harvest animals for food, and the trafficking of exotic animals. Clear cutting of forests destroys habitats which is devastating to animals. The lumber companies are dually complicit because poachers ride on the logging trucks to capture exotics and to kill for the illegal bush meat trade, which operates at about $19 billion annually and leads to species extinction. And did you know that the Ebola virus which is blasted all over the news because it’s killing all those people in Africa can be linked to eating infected wild game or bush meat?
There’s another connection. Dreams as you know are the mess of our unconscious mind, and they are also a source of my art. My painting of the human figure with the deer face that gazes directly at the viewer is grounded in a vivid dream in which I was a deer, I was actually in a deer’s body, and extremely frightened by a noise from a machine that was coming closer. I felt threatened by something awful and hidden, but close by. I often call that deer-face figure “Shakespeare,” I’m not sure why but I’m relating him to the greatest writer of human tragedy in the English language.
I want to tell you something because I believe it’s relevant to my art. For my entire life I’ve been inarticulate, which is probably an important reason I paint. When I was a child I was painfully shy and developed a slight stutter, and felt uncomfortable around groups of people. My mother took me to the speech therapist her friend's son was seeing, he was a handsome, shy boy and I had a crush on him. My condition gradually improved but his worsened, and years later I learned sadly that he killed himself and I know it was from crippling self-doubt, because I’ve felt it. As a child I spent quite a bit of time alone, with my dog, with animals and out in nature, and my communication skills improved. Looking back, I find links between the past and the path I’ve chosen. This is called “introversion,” one of Jung’s favorite terms by the way. This interview is another introspective process for me, a scary one.
VBA: The installation you created for the Jung Center’s main gallery is tied to the theme of animals, and has much deeper implications.
CK: My installation I Will Become a Mountain Again, (material prima) visually suggests animals and mountain landscapes, as well as my body, and is based on Jung’s correlation of the principles of alchemy as detailed in the Magnum Opus to the process of realization of the self, which he called individuation. According to Jung’s construct the “negrido” alchemical stage symbolized by the color black stands for darkness, confusion, and the shadow, and the “albedo” stage symbolized by the color white denotes purification, spirituality and understanding. The piece is made of stacked layers of sheer colored metallic fabric that symbolize the alchemical transformation of common metals into gold, and nod to the four alchemical symbolic colors. It cites our evolution through hazy incomprehension to enlightenment. You will notice bare feet beneath the fabric, they are haunting, no? Those are casts of my feet, and they complete the image of my personal transformation into a deer and a mountain, and the integration of my psyche.
It’s important you recognize that my paintings also model the stages of the Opus because they evolved in phases. Their ghost images and visible traces resulting from alterations, beneath layers of poured and dripped paint, are important components. These artworks represent an act of transmutation.
VBA: Integral to transformation is that absurd notion of time.
CK: Precisely, time is an ingredient in my art. And, it’s so weird that time might not be real, even if it feels real. Moments do seem to move forward.
VBA: Einstein spoke of relativity’s “incomparable” beauty.
CK: Beautiful yet inexplicable. When my father was dying he had some kind of revelation about time. I don’t know what happened to him, but his expression indicated it was transformative. He was unconscious, then he came back, and he said, “Christy! Time is all relative!” I think he travelled. When he was unconscious he held his body straight with his toes pointed forward, and his hands flat on each side, like he was floating. I believe he was time-travelling. What’s spooky is he saw something in my future that upset him. He said “Oh no! Christy, it’s you, no!” I wonder about that.
Christina Karll, Untitled (Connectivity) Slate Blues and Greens, 2006, Latex paint, oil stick and conté pencil on panel board, 96” x 48”
VBA: Several times we’ve discussed important Neolithic sites we have visited. Being at those sites, Catal Huyuk is an example, reinforces for me the extreme depth of time, and the fact that human consciousness extends so deeply through it, and invites me to wonder if consciousness and intelligence are eternal, in the Vedic sense. The Upanishads tell us everything existed in the beginning, and it always will.
CK: When I saw Neolithic sites in Scotland it touched something deep within me. I saw myself! It went beyond perception, I felt connected to the earth and the cosmos, and thought “I am this.” It was deeply felt, and inspired my art. Some symbols and figures were quite unfamiliar and Jung might have categorized them as primordial images and archaic remnants without known origins, but they felt familiar to me. We probably share DNA with others from distant eras, and I’m trying to capture that mystery in the art. One way is by incorporating texture made from organic materials. I create relief in my paintings with a mulch of paper and leaves and hair, usually my own hair.
VBA: How can anyone have that much hair? It’s Pythian.
CK: Oh, my mother thinks I should cut my hair.
VBA: So how come you haven’t used the word “spiritual?” I’m usually up to my ass in the word spiritual when I talk to artists. They love to use that word.
CK: My art is spiritual because it’s a tool for self knowledge.
VBA: Self knowledge is the most sensible thing one can achieve according to Socrates, and by the way, your philosophy coheres with the fundamental spiritual premise that where we attach our inner mind, is where we meet the self, and is precisely where we find heaven and hell and the gods.
It came to pass that a fellow artist decided it was important to set me on the right track regarding your art. Last year Keith Hollingsworth contacted me and encouraged me to “investigate” Christina Karll’s art. “Dig beneath the surface,” Keith insisted.
CK: And I didn’t know my friend Keith talked to you about me, until recently. Naturally when I heard, I felt I had to follow up.
Christina Karll, Journey Through the Trees, 2009, Latex paint on canvas, 96 x 60