Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Karsten Creightney
Paper Visions 

His voracious curiosity about art’s role in history means we cannot avoid what Karsten Creightney has contributed to this moment in our voracious living history. Partly that’s because the scale of his offerings are dimensional not only in size, subject matter, materials. In his words, the heart of things is “worn on [his] sleeve.”

That advertisement for me advocates unabashedness combined with humility. Creightney refers to himself as a “very slow learner,” someone who in younger days felt worlds away from technical prowess of European Renaissance and Dutch masters, leagues apart from El Greco and Velasquez. Their times and subject matters appeared too far afield, a full understanding of what they portrayed or portended elusive. But it wasn’t much time before repeated open-minded returns urged by the safety of his family, his schools, their books, and those doors began to gradually swing open.

He discloses how aspects of his training, their emphasis on old ways of hierarchical mastery, are what turned him away from those previous eras of artistic practice. He strives instead to maintain a constant sense of autodidactism. “I never want to stop apprenticing.” Thus his tendency propels a commitment to liberal arts without fear of veering into unexpected or uncharted territories.

Retreats into the natural world also provide ongoing tutelage. Those and adventures in foraging, pulling materials from thrift stores and discarded books, layering them with matter and inquiry without caution about how they might transport him and his viewers into unexpected places. He says such improvisational impulses are in response, in part, to contemporary academic and art market fixations with conceptual art. The trick, according to Creightney, is not to fear ubiquity, not to fear subject matter if it veers hazardously close to derivative or what he refers to cheerfully as overplayed. (In fact, labels of all sorts be damned for their impositions and superficiality.) 

Arab Spring II, lithography, silkscreen,
ink & colored pencil on paper, 30 x 22 inches 

“If I want to paint flowers,” he laughs, “then gawd-dammit, I’m going to paint flowers.” 

Lightheartedness is part of how he renders what others might press into hackneyed imagery. How he’s capable of playing with and in contrast to a subject of conventional beauty the recurring flower figure in ways not prescribed by traditional precedents.

There were moments he wondered whether it was viable to fixate on a subject we find ourselves yawning at, glazed over at in a hospital waiting area or a sterile hotel room. It’s viable. With head-on pursuit of multiple mediums, offset and highlighted with multiple fields of information. With rabbit-skin glue to preserve the integrity of what others refer to as a canvas. With layers of pasted paper, thin mixtures of wax, varnish, linseed oil. With printmaking pressure that sinks one thin piece of Japanese parchment into a thicker base. It means great lengths to smooth it into a complete carrying vessel. And for work so antithetical to superficial, the surface is one of the essentials.

Speaking of precedents: What I read as (cheeky?) references to early Andy Warhol’s floral work, Creightney says are grateful and unabashed acts of homage. He loves, after all, that Warhol implanted a conversation with the culture of mass production still buzzing, loves learning through imitation by adopting some of the same processes that Warhol did in his frenzied pursuit of imitation. The Warhol way of making work implanted a kind of new dialect into the world of art, a license to give its practitioners, Creightney among them, an abiding lack of inhibition.

“It’s in his spirit that I’m stealing and borrowing.” (Again, laughing.) Such full transparency in methodology means weight and depth of his pieces manage to simultaneously wholly complement and counteract other forms of sincerest flattery or thievery. His Lagoon woman was “straight-up lifted” from Gauguin’s Woman By the Sea. (It had to be done. “She’s a gesture of pure beauty.”) There are also nods to David Hockney’s deconstructed Western landscapes photographs, though Creightney’s are an invocation of serenity, an idyll imagined rather than imprinted or constructed.

He’s considered making work more polished, more precisely packaged. Stints in academia instilled how to distill polished descriptives, but those exercises also taught him that those are “against my nature.” Rather he tries to exert a “push and pull between deliberate intention” and what materializes, morphed by reactions to the materials he collects and manipulates. Not immune to the manic barrage of political discourse that only seems to have picked up steam and vitriol and volume, “but it’s also so exhausting and infuriating, that I have to escape into my own worlds--peaceful worlds that only exist in the imagination.”

Karsten Creightney, Self Portrait as Walter Scott, 2016, collage, silkscreen, acrylic & wax on wood, 24 x 32 inches

Karsten Creightney, Lagoon, 2016, collage, silkscreen, watercolor, acrylic, oil & wax on canvas, 66 x 78 inches

And “I don’t want to shout,” he says, nor does he confront with aggression. Rather he extends an invitation, provides the space and time he’s been allowed in his own life for asking disconcerting questions, for expelling anger and frustration in compelling forms  rather than reacting. He’s seen people turn away hardened, lacking transformation, when they’re “immediately hammered with the point.”

His wariness of the potential of art to comment on civil society with exploitative methods is palpable. “I’m not living in the ghetto. Cops aren’t harassing me on a daily basis. Talk to me on the phone, and you’d probably not have any idea I’m black.” The question, then: Is the maker’s right to explore such subjects, to take any ownership, to benefit from an awful extreme?

A film that struck him, 13th, omitted Walter Scott’s killing by a Charleston police officer per wishes of Scott’s family. And yet a still frame trimmed out of the worldwide sharing of his visible death notice meant Creightney felt not only “fury” and horror, but that “as an artist it’s also my place to acknowledge countless things,” no matter how they incite feelings that simply cannot be contained. His Arab Spring II piece, for one: Creightney describes its background as a field of noise. But that field feeds crops, bloom bursting through what others see a desert. Not unlike the places he calls home, places that can peel  eyes open with drought or depletion, beauty brimming from a wilderness unaccustomed outsiders might overlook as too harsh, too brown, too barren. Too fertile to crave shelter.

Karsten Creightney, Outskirts, 2016, collage, watercolor, acrylic, oil & wax on canvas, 66 x 78 inches

— Margaret Wright
    Freelance journalist from New Mexico, residing in Washington, D.C. 

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