Great art not only makes allowances for the accidental, it thrives on it. Great artists don't despair at their mistakes. Not always. Nor should they. A rip or a stain, say, provides an occasion to seek out a more subtle meaning in a work of art; and an artist enough in tune with the work might recognize the serendipity in the unforeseen and use that chance to elevate the minor to something more. It's the moment when art becomes metamorphosis, when the creator and created act mutually upon one another.
It's how you know you're in the midst of it all and not just painting by numbers or connecting dots.
I can't say whether it was intentional or not — I believe not, and that's all the better — but Karen Reisdorf was right there in that metamorphosis, inside what the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls the fission of Being. Her exhibition of nine paintings currently on display at Pieces Gallery on Main Street is a testament to that.
She has titled the series of mixed-media paintings: The Key. Each started out as a dribble of black paint and turned into an expressionistic depiction of a Greek myth: Pandora, Cupid and Psyche, Orpheus. This one below is titled: "Midas (His Gift)."
Karen never intended for the different parts that make up each work to be brought together as they are. If you look closely at them, you'll see that they are made of a hodegpodge of materials: part plexiglass, part newsprint, part paint, some straight-up pigment and some splotches of colored encaustic.
But it didn't start that way.
She was quite literally sloshing some paint around on squares of plexiglass about a year ago. Her smears, blotches and whips of color began as expressions, as inked remnants of gestures that, as they worked their magic on her over several months, ended by insisting that they be recognized as more literal forms.
She confesses: "I was literally staring at them for six months, wondering what they were going to be."
Fed up with her waiting, they spoke up, and what began as a quite subjective experiment in abstraction turned into a cry for autonomy by the works themselves.
So she set about creating an atmosphere for the original drippings of black paint, adding a splotch of encaustic here, a dusting of gold pigment there. Her ventures into Greek mythology helped her to decipher what the paint was telling her but make no mistake: the works said what they were, not the other way around.
Take "Apollo and Daphne," for example. Karen says flat out that she wanted that piece to be Cupid and Psyche, tried to make it Cupid and Psyche, wished for it, fought for it, but the paint refused to yield to her advances. It told the story of Apollo and Daphne, not Cupid and Psyche, and she couldn't change that.
As she says: "I tried to turn it into Cupid and Psyche, but it wouldn't become that."
It was Apollo and Daphne, and it would only be recognized as such.
"Narcissus was the impetus for the show," she says.
That was the "splotch" that first spoke to her to say: This is what I am. It's one of my favorite pieces, one of those that contain the two elements I most like about Karen's work: the brutality of her expressionistic paint whips subdued, re-imagined in a context and so taken out of their primordial chaos. "Cupid" may achieve this the best. "Pandora" pulls it off in reverse.
It's up for interpretation whether Narcissus is an ironic or an apt beginning to the project. For those unfamiliar with the myth, Narcissus is a young boy who falls in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Meanwhile, a nymph named Echo falls in love with the boy. In the end, both lovers fail to move their beloved with their mute yet ardent affections.
So... was Karen seeing herself in the works all along? Or were the things themselves staring back at her?
The myth of Narcissus and Echo brings up another prominent theme in Karen's show: love. Karen says the making of all the paintings was a "purging of unrequited love" for her. In a way, then, she is Narcissus and Echo, though she transcends both in the act of creation — by fusing myth with her own emotions, by fusing paint with plastic with newsprint with wax, by cheating accident to make something more.
It makes sense then, when she tells me: "It was a cleansing."
She fulfills the vision of Merleau-Ponty: "Seeing is not a certain mode of thought or presence to self; it is the means given me for being absent from myself, for being present from within at the fission of Being only at the end of which do I close up into myself." That is what I think should truly be meant by artistic vision.
"The eye accomplishes the prodigious work of opening the soul to what is not soul — the joyous realm of things and their god, the sun." —Merleau-Ponty