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Questioning Duality - Interview with Karen Ciaramella
August 31, 2007

It has been my privilege to have known Karen Ciaramella for some time now, and I think that, after you  read this interview, you will understand my esteem. She has always impressed me with her personal courage in living a life of integrity, and in living a life of sprituality that some might find idiosyncratic. She is a thoughtful person, a kind person, and one who sees life as, among other things, an opportunity for service to others.

Karen recently completed her studies in a Master's program at NYU, pursuant to which she had a show at their gallery in Washington Square, where I first saw the installation of her work. Here is an interview we recently had:

Bill: Karen, to 'prep' for this interview, you had asked me to look at your work, and to relate to you my naive impressions of it, prior to my reading your artist's statement. Well, if you're looking for 'naive', I'm your guy.  Here are my impressions; these are terms that came to mind:
  • 'Inchoate' was a term I wrote, because most of the work seemed a bit hidden and not really obvious*
  • (Referring to the second piece) This is the piece that caused me to write 'constrained untidyness' on my list, because a part of it flows onto the floor, but there's a frame around a part of it, so there's a tension there
  • 'Pale', of course, well I think that's evident
  • 'Flowing' comes from the fact that some of these spill onto the floor from above
Karen: I love the fact that you're getting 'flowing' and 'untidyness', both --- that's good
B: That's good? All right. I didn't really know what to make of the one that has the nine squares on the wall, with a kind of 'splat' of material on parts of it. It looks like something was thrown against the wall.

Click here to see a larger version. NOTE: with some browsers, you may only see an image which is same size as the one above. Wait until a 'magnifying glass' cursor appears, then click with the cursor on that smaller image to see the full view. It's 1200 pixels wide.

B: What's the name of this?

K: 'Shaktipat', this piece conveys the awakening of Kundalini Energy and its subsequent ascension.
B: 'Shaktipat', OK... Oh, interesting. Now I'm flashing on how that splat is like a slap to the forehead when you 'get it'. (By the way, actually, I had wanted to add to my list the reaction that parts of the installation 'look like sperm', but declined to do so, and was interested to see from your artist's statement that part of your intention was in fact to refer to reproduction).
K: Yes, one of the recurring themes was birth and death.
B: OK, looking at the artist's statement here, and I guess that, once you read an artist statement, it really makes sense what they're doing. And at this point I have to confess that I'm really more of the school of 'art appreciator' or whatever it's called where it has to make sense to me, you know what I mean? At times I've gone to things like the Whitney Biennial and have said out loud comments like "I think these people are really getting over", or are putting something over on me (us), and I've actually gotten angry and scornful. I mean, I just wanted to say that.
K: I've had that experience myself.
B: Oh, really?
K: All the time. In the galleries in Chelsea, there's loads of stuff that makes me want to ask "Is this the Emperor's new clothes?"
B: Hmmm
K: I mean, "what's going on?"
B: Well, I guess this brings me to a question. When I was in school, I remember reading something by Alexander Pope about poetry, to the effect that one of the roles of the poet was to try to communicate "what all have felt, but none so well expressed". So do you feel like that's what artists should do, or does that vary from one person to the next?
K: It definitely varies. Like, for me it's a visual representation of that inner dialogue, of what goes on between my belief system and reconciling it with the world as I know it, and trying to visually represent that dichotomy that exists in my head, about the two.
B: And your purpose in doing this is to communicate, or to educate?
K: To visually represent.
B: OK.
K: I think all artists have their narrative, even artists that have no apparent narrative, so to speak.
B: Well we all have a narrative..
K: Oh yeah. So, I think it's just what I'm exploring.
B: You're not like some of these folks, these tortured artists who just have to get something out or else it'll drive them nuts or anything?
K: (very quickly) No, no!
B: How much of the day do you think you devote to thinking about your art, or is that even an appropriate question?
K: It varies. Sometimes all day long, and then other times, because of ... life, you know, getting in the way, and needing to pay the bills, I have to shift my focus to other things, so I'm not fully absorbed. If I had my druthers, fully most of the time, that's where I would drift.
B: Because that's what resonates best with you?
K: Uh-huh.
B: Is that sort of how you view your 'job' as a human, or what you choose to do?
K: Making art?
B: Yeah.
K: Self-expression, plain and simple.
B: Let's go over some of the pieces. And note please, reader that her artist's statement is found here.
K: Very good. First of all, the material. You remember that when we spoke earlier, I had mentioned the artist Joseph Beuys?   Pronounced 'boyz', btw
B: Right, and I'll refer the reader to this discussion of him, and this and this link to works exhibited in this country.
K: Well, I didn't choose the material (wool) with Joseph Beuys in mind, but the material absolutely references one of the materials that he used
B: Right, right, I remember from your suggested reading the story of his rescue by Tartar tribesmen in the Crimea during WW II after a plane crash, who wrapped him in animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health, and how he used that material in some of his works.
K: That's right, it was something that was warm, protective, and preserved life, and so in a similar fashion I used wool, all white wool, because of the reference to Kandinsky, and his color theory, which I also touched on in my artist's statement.
(Later insertion by interviewer after looking up Kandinsky:) It is worth taking the time to at least read a little about this Russian, as his life and career touched on the lives and careers of so many in Europe in the early decades of the last century, and he was seminal in the Blaue Reiter school, and the Bauhaus. Resuming now:
K: The second piece I want to discuss is titled 'Shrihydrogenperoxidebabyfoodacetonepinktoenailpolish seven sheetsofpaper', and I think the name will make sense so bear with me. The picture below is a detail of the larger work.
K: The items that are hidden within the work are items that I specifically chose when I was in Venice in Summer 2006, and it was right at the time that there was a ban on all liquids being carried aboard flights in carry-on luggage because of a foiled Al Qaeda bomb plot. Baby food is something that would sustain life, hydrogen peroxide is useful, nail polish is a vanity item, and so forth, and these are ordinary, every-day that one would use.
B: Oh, now I see!
K: Everything was banned but the seven sheets of paper mentioned in the title. So, it's a play on the idea that these are used every day, or could be, and were completely innocuous, and yet, if you use them another way, they're potentially weapons.
B: Funny you mention this because the other day I was dropping off some donated books at a prison, and the man receiving them was checking any workbooks with spiral binding to see if the binding was metal, as it could be fashioned into some weapon or other; I just completely missed the implication, but he went right for it. Funny how one's perspective is a reflection of what they deal with in their life, their workaday life.
K: Right, see? So that's why the title of the work is as you see it, because everything in life is as you see it, and that fundamentally describes and embodies my work. Again, the idea of birth and death, of living in this particular moment in time. The reason that it is set up the way it is, that the wool passes up through and down below, and actually spins on bars up top and comes back down is, that it references the continuum of the regenerative forces of life. The wool, insular and protective, symbolizes Divinity embracing the perfection of non-duality. Bars over which wool passes
B: When you break it down like that, this is pretty thought-provoking --- AND accessible.
K: The wooden frame represents the earth and is marking a moment as a specific reference point in the continuum of time.
B: A 'time frame'?
K: Exactly. The items one can perceive throughout my work, I think, include sperm, some people see genitalia, some have said 'innards', umbilical cords, all sorts of bodily associations, again, going back to the idea of birth and death, and constant flux.
B: Now, how many people have given their 'naive assessment' of your work before they read your artist's statement, or you explained it to them?
K: Not enough.
B: Well, for those who did, were you pleased to hear what they said? Did you seem to have 'hit it'?
K: Well, without question, for this piece, it's important to be given some information up front. The title Shri hydrogenperoxide babyfood acetone pinktoenailpolish sevensheetsofpaper provides content, obviously. But the title doesn't provide enough content, because I don't want to be didactic. I mean, why not just paint a painting of what I think, then? I mean, I wanted it to be abstract. I wanted people to question. As a viewer, you are seeing 'hidden' and you're seeing 'light', and getting to see some of the 'code', but is the piece interesting enough for me to want to delve further into it and want to know more, or not? I think with art, when you view it, you have a visceral reaction to it, and it's good or it's not, or you have a less visceral reaction, and you might just be curious, and then once you find out more, then you decide if it's good or it's not. So, you know, that's my world of 'viewing art'.
B: I understand.
K: Now, the knotting on the floor; in Kundalini, the energy is visualized as stored energy coiled, at the base of the spine..
B: The snake.
K: Yeah. So a recurring theme, a recurring aesthetic, is to find the knot, the coil, in my work.

Below, see the entire piece. Notice the wooden 'time frame', and coiled wool on the seven sheets of paper:

Click here to see a much larger version of the work. NOTE: with some browsers, you may only see an image which is same size as the one above. Wait until a 'magnifying glass' cursor appears, then click with the cursor on that smaller image to see the full view. It's about 1800 pixels wide.

*Karen subsequently checked the word 'inchoate', and emailed back:

  "... I also wanted to mention that I looked up "inchoate" ( I like to delve further into word association to see what it
   reveals..) In addition to "not fully formed" I was delighted to find "beginning" and "embryonic" in the thesaurus. Perfect! "

Does that count as synchronicity? Like I told her at the time, the word just jumped out at me.