Karen Azarnia received her MFA in Painting and Drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design. She has exhibited widely, including solo exhibitions at the Union League Club of Chicago, IL; Gallery Uno, Chicago, Il. She currently serves as Director of the Riverside Arts Center Freeark Gallery.
Interviewed by: Kristina Daignault & Michael Soto.
Kristina: I met you through the Riverside Art Center. Would you call yourself a curator there?
Karen: I’m the gallery director, so I basically run the exhibitions program. I curate a good number of the shows, but we also have other people curate. For instance, sometimes a board member will curate a show, or a guest curator. I facilitate all that and make sure it all goes smoothly.
KD: Did they approach you? How did you get connected?
KA: It’s a beautiful thing actually. I exhibited there a couple years back, so I came to it as an artist. Most of the people that are there are coming either as practicing artists or educators. It’s half gallery, half school. I showed in the gallery, and it was right around the time when it was going through a transition period. The center is 20 years old and just last year celebrated the 20th anniversary. So, a lot of the people that had been on the board, some for over a decade, they were looking to step off and bring some new blood in. There was also a rough period with the economy, like most places. Fortunately, they squeaked by and were able to keep their doors open and then bring a new president and vice president, and other new board members. There had been a few interesting exhibitions happening there, and I just saw some potential in that. Like, “Why can’t we develop this and kick it up a notch and take it all a step further.” The timing was just right for a new director to come in, and so I was like, “Do you need some help?” and that was it. To give you a little background, I do consider myself a painter and an artist first – that’s really important – and this is kind of an extension of what I do. I feel like that kind of relates to a lot of the different artists in Chicago, this kind of tradition of curating and teaching and having other activities under this kind of umbrella of one’s practice.
KD: Yeah, I’ve noticed that.
KA: So I was in grad school at SAIC for 2 years from 2006 to 2008.
KD: So painting then?
KA: Yeah, MFA. Painting and drawing. I worked with some amazing people. I worked with Jim Lutes for one, he was really important in just learning about materials and techniques. It’s kind of this 2-step process when I usually start a piece, I’ll go flat, and this is kind of the more abstract slightly quicker phase where I’ll have an idea for an overall composition, And I will do quick pours, kind of fluid pours, flat like Frankenthaler or something like that, for instance. That’s more intuitive and gestural and all that good stuff. Then once that phase is done, then it goes up on the wall, and then the process slows down as I start to work the figurative parts into the background that’s been established.
KD: Are you mostly oil painting or acrylic?
KA: I do both, so usually it’s oil, but more recently I’ve been doing acrylics in the background to kind of speed the process up.
KD: I took a class on painting and it wasn’t for me.
KA: You have to have a lot of patience, and I’m not necessarily the most patient person. They’re more flexible than you think, that’s the thing, because I learned you can sand, you can just keep going ad infinitum until you’re happy with it. Certain things are irrevocable, but then just working with material now for enough time can really manipulate it and pull some stuff out of it. So sometimes, I love to work on just a pristine white surface and build on that. But sometimes I’ll take the canvases that I’m dissatisfied with and sand them down and use that as a base, or just start painting over it, and then this kind of back-and-forth layering process. It’s really very much about the layers and the time that that indicates, because it’s a trace of the passage of time. And that’s really important; because that basically embodies the subject matter I’m interested in—time. You know, we all have relationships, we all have connections with each other, but we all exist within this passage of time. So, I think that speaks to it—the use of the material speaks to the subject.
KD: Are you painting on fabric, or was that canvas at Terrain?
KA: I’m usually on canvas or linen. The whole Terrain experiment was a deviation, and it’s exciting because it’s one of those moments where you step outside your normal set of rules and your practice, and it opens things for you. It was very exciting for me, like when someone is new to art making, and they’re just discovering things for the first time. It brought me back to that in a way. And I’m sure it’s going to change or affect and shake things up, moving forward, back into my painting practice. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, how I could do this installation, because her space is not the traditional white cube, and how do you translate what you’re interested in in your practice to that space? So, I really thought about how I could do that, this interest in the passage of time, a kind of connection to community and people, but abstraction, representation, and that formal dialogue. And I’m getting this chance to play just with light itself. So instead of painting the illusion of light, you actually get to use optical light—real light—and that was a very cool thing to get to do. So yeah, I had a lot of fun with it.
KD: Do you think you’ll make more installations?
KA: I feel like I just started, and I could refine it and keep going with that. And somehow, as it influences the paintings, I do these kind of hanging pieces—like base pieces. They can continue having a conversation or dialogue, so maybe the paintings come a little closer somehow. Who knows how the hanging pieces would evolve to further reflect the paintings? So I do think they’re two distinct bodies of work, but again it was really fresh and fast, because it’s just acrylic on muslin, and the whole history of domesticity with muslin and all that good stuff. But they’re really fast, just doing them on the floor, for the front panel. It’s two panels, so that part was quick. But then again, just like my painting process, the second panel with the silhouette painted in just gesso—super simple materials, nothing expensive or fancy. That part was slower, of course, because I had to really be careful about edges. I didn’t want a hard outline and formal qualities I had to think about. So that took more labor and time. Well, in a way, a different type of labor. So, it deconstructed my painting process, and it was essentially like having two paintings in one, and yet maybe even a third when you add the light element and the whole transition as the piece shifts from day to night.
KD: I think everyone can sort of latch on to that reveal, like there’s a secret there.
KD: I thought it was really exciting.
Michael: It was a great piece. You mentioned the history of domesticity related to muslin fabric – can you explain that a little?
KA: Oh, sure. Muslin has been around forever, and just the idea of the labor of sewing, which again, I’m terrible at sewing. And this is based at Terrain which is in a suburban space across from a school in a suburban environment, so this was a kind of nod to tie into that. I consider myself a feminist, and I’m also really interested in craft and craftsmanship and the idea of labor and putting that in, so it’s kind of a nod to all of that. In my work, I like to embrace art historical tradition as well and all of these other good things that have come before. So kind of like my strawberry bruschetta, it’s a twist on something.
M: I do some sewing, and I buy a lot of muslin fabric, and I didn’t realize it was the default craft thing. I just bought it because it was cheap. That’s what I made my curtains out of.
KA: Well, I think it’s just been used for a lot of things. It’s been around for centuries. Memory is important to my work — not in a sentimental sense, maybe more in a nostalgic sense—but I have memories of my grandmother once showing me how she used to curl her hair when she was a little girl. This would’ve been like 1920 or something like that. They would shred strips of muslin, and they would take wet hair, and they would wrap it around and then tie it up and leave it until it dried, and that’s how they got ringlets – they didn’t have curling irons. So that was just one use of muslin, just cheap very accessible material – it wasn’t like silk or these other much more expensive luxurious items. It was ubiquitous; it was every-day. I think I like that, just really accessible materials too. For instance, the lighting component, I researched different methods of lighting, and someone had suggested theater lighting, so I was calling them up and getting quotes and finding out more about how that worked. It was very expensive, and I’m like, “Seriously? Really?” And so, go to Home Depot, and you get these very simple LED lights for maybe 20-30 bucks. Little lamps, and I just mounted them on the floor, and they’re cost-effective in terms of the light itself, but also the amount of electricity, because I didn’t want to jack Sabina’s electric bill up.
M: You’re not dealing with like hot halogen lights or something.
KA: Right, and also I wouldn’t burn her house down, so that was important. So, all these considerations that come in, that I’m like, “Wow, I don’t have to deal with any of this when I’m making a painting!” And it looked like such a simple straightforward installation, but there was a ton of small decisions that had to go into the process, which I fully appreciate now.
KD: That porch must be full of holes from people mounting things.
KA: I was like, “Do you mind if I put a hole here? If I drill into your floor?” She’s like, “No, go ahead. Go for it.” She was super awesome about it.
KD: So where does the piece live now?
KA: It’s wrapped up in the studio. Although, I am starting to do some smaller ones because with a lot of the front panels, I would do multiple ones, like maybe 2-3-4, and see which one I liked better. So there is a sense of experimentation and allowing for error and not planning ahead and then seeing which one would work with the figures compositionally best, because sometimes it looked great on its own, the abstract component, but when I put the silhouette behind it, it would, let’s say, crack the silhouette in half, or compositionally didn’t work out. So, I would rework it or work on it more or start a new one. So I have these great remnants, and I’m almost thinking I can take these, stretch these now as I would a canvas, and maybe start painting figures into them, or also doing some smaller silhouette pieces. So I’ve got all this stuff; I need to get working!
KD: Also, the colors on the color palette, you could say, are much brighter. Is that just because it was outdoors, to fit in the space? I noticed a lot of your other work is more muted.
KA: Yeah, it was definitely a response to the space. I really thought about scale and distance. How does one make sure it’s visible from the street? Thinking about the audience that’s across from the school, thinking about the time of year – this was spring. So I pushed myself. I had to make an effort to do that, to go super-bright. I was really happy with that too. I feel like that was part of the excitement. I’ve always loved color and working with color and thinking, “Why have I denied myself?” or “Why not let myself go there?” I think I want to do more with that.
KD: It also sets an emotional tone.
KA: Absolutely. Mood and tone are always really important to the piece.
KD: Also, you kept the obscured figure, which you also have in every one of your other paintings.
KA: Pretty much, yeah.
KA: Yeah, it’s pretty much primarily the figure. So, let’s say, pre-grad school, I was painting the figure in settings, and they were usually domestic interiors or landscapes. You know, fairly academic. I think as I continued working, it’s been about editing out what you don’t need and focusing on what’s important. It’s about how little you can get away with suggesting and have someone pick up on that.
KD: Or the space around the figure.
KA: There’s always been ambiguity in the piece, but I think it’s become even more so. I know I don’t need to depict everything anymore. I might suggest an interior or maybe a space through some geometric forms. I’m also interested in the organic, which could start to suggest landscape as well in that relationship, because that’s something we’re all familiar with. Now I’m just completely obsessed with the mark, the meaning of the mark, how that informs the subject. You know, a big thick pour that’s very firm that could suggest solidity and permanence, versus a really thin wash that’s barely there, that suggests something that’s fragile and tentative and impermanent.
KD: And still a graphic designer on the side?
KA: No, not really. I was doing that, but I couldn’t do that if you asked me to do that anymore. I’ll do really basic, and even for my own work, I am using photo reference a lot of the time. I don’t mind, I’ll work from life, I’ll work from photo, whatever is the best tool available to me at the moment. But I don’t appropriate. That’s really important — it’s always my own photo. It’s usually never staged, for the most part. It’s something that maybe a family member or friend, and they’re doing something, and it’s really interesting to me, so I’ll take snapshots. Or I’m out in the world, and maybe I’m in the park or just in a store, wherever, and I see some people interacting, and that maybe triggers a memory or something that catches my interest, and so I’ll just take snapshots. I have years’ worth of archives. Sometimes I’ll use it right away, or sometimes it’ll sit, and I’ll come back to it. This ties into this notion of memory and how our relationship to memories can change, and the malleability of them, too. I will sometimes take things into Photoshop and play with them a little bit, just to test out composition or cropping or color, but don’t ask me to build a website.
M: I noticed that the flash is prominent…
KA: The white, that’s kind of a new thing. It’s this notion of obscuring or revealing. I like the ambiguity of how you could perceive it. It’s something that’s been building – I’ve been incorporating these kind of washes or pours that obscure or partially obscure the figure.
KD: So when you say pour, are you actually pouring it on? How do you apply it?
KA: Sometimes. In previous paintings, I’m actually using spray enamel, and then working back in with some titanium and brushing it to get it the way I want it. Other times, I’ve really thinned it down and had it flat and poured the paint on. It really depends, because sometimes I want the gravity to show, and so I’ll tilt it, and it can drip down a little bit. So you’ll get a different sense of the material – it acts differently.
KD: I know we touched a little bit on what’s next as far as incorporating the terrain installation work with your painting. Do you have a specific project or set of work that you are currently working on?
KA: Yeah, I’ve got a couple of things I’m working on. I have a project I need to get started on where I’m collaborating with a writer named Lauren Marks, and we met her at a residency at Ragdale. She’s written a book that’s getting published by Simon and Schuster and coming out soon, and it’s called A Stitch of Time. She’s our age, she’s fairly young, and she had some kind of aneurysm. The condition she had is aphasia, so she lost her language. It’s very closely tied into memory, and she had her memories, but there was this disconnect. And it’s really fascinating. So, what she’s doing is partnering and taking an excerpt from a chapter, and then having a composer do the audio, and then I’ll do the visual.
KD: Is that going to be documented or a performance?
KA: Oh, it’ll exist as a piece, however I do it will be some kind of visual piece. So we’ll see how that goes.
M: Sounds good, I’d really like to see and hear that. I studied linguistics – we talked a lot about aphasia. Depending on what kind of aphasia she has, she may have lost her syntax, her grammar, to where she has these word associations, but she can’t put sentences together.
KA: That’s what she had, and in her head it was making sense. She kept a diary during the time, so she would write things down. She thought she was constructing perfectly legible complete sentences, and then looking back it was a complete jumble. So, she essentially had it, but she had to relearn it. It’s kind of fascinating. M: That sounds very moving.
KA: She’s incredibly articulate and a really talented writer. Some group shows coming up. In terms of projects, there’s pieces I’ve been working on up to this point that I’ll continue, and I’ll wrap them up. But then I need to throw myself into a new series of paintings coming out of this Terrain show, because I do think it’s going to shake things up. It just put me in that spot where it suddenly made me very self-aware of what limitations I had put on my practice, and what I can open up and throw away that I don’t need to be doing, and let myself just get in there and kind of go crazy with it and see what happens.