Germinate is a new series of interviews that explore curation as an art form, with a focus on artists who incorporate curating into their creative practice. Karen is an exhibiting Chicago based artist who has curated and participated in relevant contemporary exhibitions in the Chicagoland area. I’ve known Karen for her wonderful paintings that walk the line between figuration and abstraction, but became interested in her curatorial practice through the Riverside Art Center, where she’s curated some amazing exhibitions, including “All In’.
Karen Azarnia is an artist, curator and educator. She received an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. She has exhibited widely, with solo exhibitions at Terrain, Oak Park, IL; the Union League Club of Chicago, IL; and recent group exhibitions at Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln, NE; The Franklin, Chicago, IL; and Confort Station, Chicago, IL. She is a grant recipient from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and has been included in Hyperallergic, the Huffington Post and Newcity. She currently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and serves as Director of Exhibitions at the Riverside Arts Center Freeark Gallery.
DG: Tell me about the new work you made for the show at Woman Made Gallery.
KA: For the Woman Made installation, I actually had two panels. I’ve been working on them in tandem, side by side. I’m really enjoying the scale of how large they are and how quickly I can execute them.
Karen’s studio at Mana Contemporary Chicago
“There is also the softness that has always been important in the work. It hits at this idea of memory too, and the way memory functions over time.”
DG: Would you keep them on the stretchers or do you want them to be more like loose fabric?
KA: I think they need to have this looseness, this notion of the movement. It changes, it shifts when they are tacked down; It kind of deadens them. There is this thing that happens with the translation of the figures as the pieces shift and if you get a little movement or a little wind and they flutter a little bit. There is this additional layer of confusion. A lot of people might think there is a real person behind it and that’s something I’m inviting. I want that confusion to take place; I think that’s interesting. People know it conceptually, but they have to do a double take, like “Oh wait wait, I have to check that and see if there is a person or not”. You know, this idea of looking and slowing people down for a moment to experience something like that.
There is this idea that we are all subject to the passage of time and change; it’s inevitable. These are a meditation on that. We all have connections to each other and as these fade in and out, it’s a metaphor for our larger experience. There is also the softness that has always been important in the work. It hits at this idea of memory too, and the way memory functions over time. Things come in and out of focus or shift. The narratives that we have for memories shift.
DG: What about the white?
KA: People always ask me about the white. It’s about light but also inter-related to light and memory, and these things are all interconnected for me. In the older work I’m half flirting with it. I’d spend all this time working with the figure, and then I’d be like, I’m just going to paint this with white…just a little. Then I had a break through moment where I just painted the whole, just went for it, and really obscured most of the painting. You can see the history if you look from the side. You can see some of the previous marks. It’s really pushed back. Now, I have this range of images where some are more legible, and some are more pushed back.
“it becomes about my relationship with that painting and about painting itself.”
DG: What about your sources?
KA: I’m working from my own photos. I, for the most part, don’t appropriate. For me the photo is the document that proves I was there, I witnessed and observed something that actually happened. That’s the starting point, and then I might sample, or go back to old photos when they become important to me. Then later, partly through the painting the photo gets put away and completely shelved, it becomes about my relationship with that painting and about painting itself.
DG: Do you specifically use photos that you’ve taken yourself? Not photos of which you were the subject?
KA: Yes, I take the photos myself and am usually not the subject. If I take a photo of something, it’s usually because…it’s so subjective. It’s something you relate to, something that grabs your interest, that maybe sparks a memory of something; and I might not even know it at the time. I was working on another painting, and I didn’t even realize until half way through that it was because something I remember from my childhood. Often, these unconscious connections happen.
DG: How do you approach photography in relation to social media? and how does that a relate to your painting?
KA: The images that these paintings are derived from, I would generally not post because there is a kind of a intimate privacy to them. I’m conscious about it because this image is something I would want to make a painting from.
I have a stash of thousands of photos, and it might not be until even years later that I’m like, Oh I remember when I took this… Where did that go? Or because something sparks or something becomes relevant much later. Sometimes it’s very immediate. I’m specifically thinking of this and going to take a photo or find something that would relate to that. Often they sit around for a very long time and I’ll wait until it’s the right moment to use that source. It can be because of an experience I’ve had or something I’m thinking about at that present moment. Or friends and family…so it’s based on experiences and what other people I know are going through. So there’s a social component and it ties back to the idea that everyone is connected. Social media, while it has it’s own issues, we are much more connected… well, yes and no. We project. I can watch my friend’s kids grow up on Facebook. I would not have that experience otherwise.
Barely. Karen Azarnia. 2013
“I feel when I’m putting together a show, often times, it is like making a painting.”
DG: Let’s switch gears and talk about the show you curated at Woman Made Gallery. When I think about curators, their process is very much the same to the way you put together an art work. It’s that instead of thinking about the paint, canvas, the colors, like you have all of these separate elements and you put them together into this thing; and as the curator, you are thinking about different pieces from different artists and finding a way to make them click together visually, or through the idea or theme for the show.
KA: I think that hits the nail on the head. I feel when I’m putting together a show, often times, it is like making a painting. You start with a notion, but then as you start to actually go in and make selections. You nail down curatorial choices or pieces, it’s like making a move on a painting. As you make more moves and more selections, you maybe edit and you refine until you get down to the very nitty-gritty and those last few little decisions in the gallery when you’re installing, like those last few marks that can always take forever in a painting. But then it all comes together and there’s this huge deal of satisfaction that comes out of that too.
“you are responsible to a viewer, you are responsible to the artists, to represent their vision.”
DG: It’s about the experience?
KA: Absolutely. Because you are responsible to a viewer, you are responsible to the artists, to represent their vision. You try to make each artist shine, if it’s a group show, and if it is a solo or a two-person exhibition, really conveying the notion of their practice and what they try to convey to they viewer. Also, a responsibility to the viewer for their experience in the show.
DG: So tell me about this show.
KA: The name of the show is Radiance. It’s at Woman Made Gallery and it’s up through August 20th. I was approached by the previous director, Claudine Isé, about perhaps coming and doing something at Woman Made. I was thinking about different themes that interest me and one was the basic idea of light. It’s a fairly large space, so I was thinking about how I’d want to fill that space and wanting an interesting collection of different approaches. Light is something that’s a little more broad in terms of thematic content, but it’s something that’s always been in my work whether I’ve foregrounded or not, so I thought that would be great.
Also, thinking about summertime and being bathed in light after we’ve been starving for it after going through the winter in Chicago. I thought it’d appropriate on multiple levels. And then there’s been some really interesting artists working with the medium currently and also exhibits.
Elmhurst Art Museum, Staci Boris curated SpotLight and up at the Riverside Arts Center we are going to have Paola Cabal open the season. She does gorgeous light installation work, very site specific by documenting the movement of light through space. I just thought this would be a kind of timely subject to deal with also.
DG: What about the curating?
KA: I was trying to keep it broad to make it inclusive because you have a lot of different approaches. You have a much more historical traditional use of light, with painting and photography. Then you have the element of film, kicking forward to light as a medium itself with people using the very physical property of light. And of course others using a more conceptual approach to light.
I generally don’t curate myself into a show. I usually don’t do that. But When Claudine (Ise) saw the time lapse video of the installation I did at Terrain the previous spring, she said, “Could you do something like that on our front window?”, so I said “OK, that would be really fun. I would enjoy doing that”. So that is how that came about.
DG: I’m sure you’ve got a huge selection to chose from. How did you go about narrowing it down?
KA: There was a ton of work. I’ve must of gone through something like 300 images. I was looking for artists with strong practices. And they did submit a statement with their work, so of course that helps to understand what they are trying to get at because some of the pieces are conceptually based. Also, finding interesting relationships between artists so there is dialogue and conversation between the pieces that can be provocative to the viewer.
This is probably the trickiest show I’ve ever done because I had to work with light based works that maybe project or that needed very specific lighting. That was very tricky. Sometimes you bump into physical constraints of the actual exhibition space and practical stuff like that.
DG: The space is just another one of those elements you have to juggle for the show to be successful.
KA: It is. So, if you are talking about it as a kind of art piece. It becomes a site specific installation since it’s in response to the architecture. Trying not to overhang or underhang. Finding that balance. It was tricky but fun.
DG: Since you are using light based work, I’m sure some of the work was tricky to install because it needed special lighting. Where some of those artists there to help you install?
KA: Yeah. Some of the artists who had more specific instructions, like projections. Some came and we worked together to designate a spot and find the best location for it. Then I let them install and we kind of tweaked it, but others are more straight-forward like paintings. Some shows that I’ve curated, it’s completely site-specific-installation based, so just I hand over a key. There is really nothing I can do. I can assist or be there for support to provide whatever they need but it’s more about them and responding to the space versus a very straight-forward painting show like “All In” at Riverside Art Center. Art works gets delivered and I try to hang it to the best presentation of the pieces.
Check out more images from the Radiance Exhibition at Woman Made Gallery.