Thursday, April 5, 2007

Karen Louise Crain at the Big Top

Karen Louise Crain’s color photographs at the Big Top revolve around a central female character’s amusing and disjunctive interactions with her immediate environment. This character’s relationship to the audience and to her environment seems to change between “episodes,” or costume-changes.

First we see a woman with hair pulled back, reading glasses on, lounging in a retro-geometric mumu in a yard that at first glance seems off-kilter but not necessarily devastated. A big rocket is askew behind her, the plant next to her looks threateningly like a big dead furry spider in a pot, and the place seems to be in some sort of upheaval. But the character doesn’t care – she sits reading a magazine, deep in an escapist reverie induced by glossy pages. She appears unposed, and her mumu provides a certain kind of exuberant structure and contrast within the odd setting. She appears strangely comfortable.

Another photo in the same “episode” shows the same woman in the same yard. This time she is dwarfed by vegetation in upheaval. She wields a pair of clippers, which seem to pick at the upturned roots of a big tree ineffectually. Her cool in the previous photo is made comical by her attempts to control her environment in this image. I can imagine that this character is determined to do what she can to control the world – which is very little - and she’s not going to worry over it. Maintaining the bubble of one’s personal world and interests in the face of disaster and the suffering of others is the subject of these identity explorations. Karen Louise writes about this in her statement, posted in a comment below.

The second set’s character is much more posed, and appears less comfortable in, or less a part of, her environment. She steadfastly ignores the giant piles of tree trunks looming behind her, while she, clothed in a pretty dressing gown and little else, talks on the phone or pours her tea. The contradictions involved in maintaining one’s femininity in the midst of a giant clean-up are under inspection here. These photos seem to be played for contradiction much more than the garden photos.

The third costume change involves a character who comes off as a ploy for a one-line joke – it’s a good joke too. Dressed smartly as the chair of the garden club or some sort of community matron, she stands at the door of a flooded house, complete with giant orange spray-painted X on the door, knocking, with a “welcome-back” gift in her arms. She is aware of her environment and knows just what it needs, a houseplant. This character is full of omni-directional cheer, determined to make the best of the situation no matter how dire. As a viewer, I enjoy this humor but when the joke is over, I am drawn back to the more intense visual pleasure of the mumu lady in the garden, and her ambiguous relationship between what’s in her head and what’s in her surroundings.

The last character appears in only one photo. For her cameo, the woman in a leopard coat leans on a boarded up building, on which is spray painted in bright red “Looters will be shot.” Again she talks on the red phone. Her eyes are obscured by dark glasses, and a piece of matching leopard luggage makes her departure imminent. She’s getting out of Dodge. But Karen Louise, having just bought a house here 6 months before the storm, is here for a while. With some artists, the storm and it’s aftermath brought artwork to a standstill. Karen Louise Crain found the ability to start her art career at this moment.

Courtney Egan


Alternative Arts New Orleans said...

Karen Louise Crain's statement:

"These photos were conceived from two Post-K experiences:

I had heard a shocking rumor (that was later confirmed to be true!) that the folks living on Audubon Blvd. had hired Israeli commandos at a cost of 25K per day to patrol their homes to insure their possessions were not looted. This was during that horrible first week after the storm when people were still stranded at the Morial Convention Center without food, water or shelter. I was horrified that these “pillars of the community” cared more for their precious things than other people. These were families that seemed very generous in my encounters with them through my professional life yet they were really indifferent or oblivious to the suffering of the less fortunate in our community during its greatest crisis….. "

"One month later, I was the first person to move back to my block after Hurricane Katrina. I was one of the lucky few, with a dry home that I owned and my job intact so it was relatively easy for me to return. Nonetheless, I was floored by the empty, devastated landscape. My reaction, bordering on compulsion at times, was to wear my fanciest clothes, use the good china and put on high heels to go to the only working grocery store in town. This wasn’t to flaunt my good fortune. Instead, Post-K material items were less precious, not something to treasure for a special occasion that may never come. It was also a personal touchstone for beauty and civility in a time of chaos, despair and ugliness. These self-portraits were born of those impulses and the irony that I felt about having them, especially after having been so shocked by the Audubon crowd….."

ARTinACTION said...

What an incredibly beautiful act of rescripting - to wear the finery to the grocery store, to eat by kerosene lantern on the best china. And so indicative of a New Orleanian appreciation for life and costuming that preceeded Katrina - post K it feels like a political act.