Whenever there’s a painting within a confined space, there’s an organic demand for a heightened focus—however long or short—that’s seemingly uncompromisable. There’s an immediate pull that warrants our sympathy, making us pause temporarily. Paintings always elicit a reaction. Whether we chose to like the work or not, it doesn’t matter.
Paris-based painter Ana Karkar sets an example of such externalized force, her work typically enacting a visual narrative of female body and their encompassing circumstances. It’s especially her portraitures of women that sometimes seem overwhelming to spend time with as Karkar is an artist who possesses the fundamental means to present matter in its fullest form; occurrences that are genuine and invadable, terrible and reconciliatory. All at the same time.
Having grown up in a home where gender didn’t adhere to a fixed set of definitions, Karkar has gained access to a rare sensibility that allows for her paintings to exhibit female body neutral enough and, above all, empathetic to its opposite sex. It’s her female gaze—intuitive and sort of unraveled—that authorizes everyone to observe the work without feeling the pressure of time or the often-returning discourse of objectification. It’s impossible to not succumb to the autonomous beauty that’s right there, visually as well as conceptually. Perhaps it’s almost a matter of giving in. When we’re amongst her paintings, we get to live and die through and with them. In the end, Karkar lets us experience what we were always supposed to experience when gazing upon art—we denounce, temporarily, everything else.
Where’s your head at lately?
Violence has been on my mind a lot these days. I’m looking for a release from violence. I think when we hear the word violence we associate it to physical injury, but it’s also an intense force, a disruption. There could be all different kinds of circumstances where we feel violence. And I’ve been thinking about how images and music are able to release these shocks, as if when something unwarranted enters the body, the reverberations felt from artistic expression can draw them out and sublimate.
I grow tired of placated messages on social media. It’s been on my mind a lot because of our current political climate and digital resources. We have the ability to respond digitally to a physical reality, but the digital age has led to behaviors of complacency. What would a digital riot look like? I feel like there should be more ways to share the feelings of violence that exist within us without instigating actual physical violence. I’m weary of messages of love meant to generate approval in response to media-defined violence, when love is also a form of violence.
There’s a general intervention of landscape within your paintings, mostly in form of nature and the female body. What makes you come back to these universal yet definite themes?
I find the structures in nature more visibly intricate. I can form direct relationships to them. The information I take from viewing nature or experiencing nature isn’t manipulated by the viewpoint of another. No one can tell me the way a branch grows symbolically signifies one thing or another. The branch’s significance comes from my personal identification with it. This kind of undisturbed connection gives me stronger visceral access between my hand and the surface when I’m working. If I feel a loss in concentration while working on other subjects—interrupted by voices of judgment or expectations—I’ll come back to nature.
I depict the female body because it’s the body I have. I grew up in San Francisco with a single parent and no knowledge of gender roles. It crosses over with how I feel about nature and society. There’re definitions and expressions of the body I inherently feel and had the freedom to develop that are controversial in society but accepted in nature. As a teenager, when I found a man attractive, I emulated his movement or stance just by finding beauty in his gesture. I constantly go back to the female figure seeking to depict her in ways unbound by conventions. The female form to me is not a cavity, nor then predatory. It’s extremely complex and mutable. I strive to do it justice.
How do you identify with nature, as well as in relation to society and its predisposed expectations that by now have even collided with parts of nature itself?
I think first there’s nature and then there’re the experiences of confronting society with one’s own nature, and yet further our transformation in relation it. There are things we’re irrationally drawn to that chisel our personalities, and society has ways to smear them out. These dynamics are in perpetual dialogue. Other times it’s we who operate as amoebas and society carves and molds us: we perceive ourselves as shapeless, unsure of what exterior eyes can see in and of us, sometimes even that which may be unrecognizable to ourselves.
It really depends on how a person values consensus and what he or she considers as recognition from another person, to become more pronounced or disfigured. I see the formation of character in sculptural terms, the self having choices to become more unique or more effaced. Attributing too much weight to societal expectation—or “appropriateness”—is a form of denial, like a self-inflicted shadow. Sometimes that shadow can be so familiar to a person that they become as one. As a result their nature turns to other forms of expression, such as sadism or self-destruction.
I also relate nature to intuition, which I liken to a form of capturing information on a cellular, almost particle level of one’s surroundings and environment. Feelings borne of intuition come to us without an explanation that can be shared. There can be all kinds of stigmas related to that. Thankfully art has a place for this kind of mysticism.
Having grown up in a home where the notion of gender and their commonly-broadened differentiations were much more subtle, I’m curious how you observe the sort of sensibilities—both internal and external—of one and the other.
As a kid I just saw the differences as different appendages, or areas where appendages could grow or not. As an adult, I’m very drawn to a woman’s sexual prowess, and a man’s androgyny; how it is they’re able to exude these traits. In terms of the female form versus the male form, I see the female form as mercurial; she can become liquid or solid, soften, harden, and shape shift. I see the male form as more reactionary, set at different temperatures.
Your paintings often detail specific boundaries between the bodily and the realities they continually abide within, the result coveting human vulnerability in its actual state of being. A sensibility I actually find especially feminine. I wonder if this femininity also, or perhaps especially, stems from your ability to exist somewhat mutually between gender. Or perhaps not existing mutually, but there’s this undeniable empathy for both, which is why your female depiction also exhibits such innocuous vitality. How would you define the women you depict within your paintings?
I would like to think the women in my paintings are emancipated from both male gaze and feminism. That, as well as the undeniable empathy for both genders, as you say, could be what gives them that quality of innocuousness. I think aggressivity comes forth in relation to a threat and I’m not addressing threats so bluntly. The women I portray are sensual yet not motivated by carnal / material pleasures, expressing at times an inner violence . People can find them arousing, but they do not perform to arouse. Actually, I quite enjoy that viewers might find their very innocuousness offensive.
Do you identify with their image at all?
I do identify with their image for the time being. A lot of my own sensuality as well as the tensions I’ve encountered confusing categories are embodied here. Interestingly enough, some of these paintings are based off photographs of women who’ve objectified themselves and I’ll warp them into subjects with my own gaze. They emerge from a process of melding and dismantling archetypes with a desire to create alternatives and that’s very much a part of who I am.
The statement on your website immediately comments on the correlation between photography and painting. There’s a logical linkage, of course, yet also these two ways of expression are innately diverse in terms of their approach and relational mode of empathy.
I have a weakness for collecting photographs, and probably study photography more than I do painting. I’m learning there are vast moments that are best captured in photography.
If there’s such a fixed tendency to collect and study photographs, why do you choose to paint and not photograph the things you notice?
Photography was never my instinctual choice medium. I choose painting for a different kind of precision. It’s closer to my internal reality. Painting allows me to create formations with a layering process, related to a subject’s growing effects. There’s the initial subject, and then there is the time it lives in my psyche, what it transforms of me, and what I’m able to extract from these relationships. I communicate these transitions using my gestures and my physical entirety. If I do practice photography, it’s always with the idea that I’ll paint the images later. The image itself is not what I’m seeking to portray, but an ingredient.
While of course photographs are just as accessible for analysis, there’s this absurdly dedicational journey that embarks while creating a painting. A dedication that requires continuous care. How do you study photography closer than painting?
When I view paintings, I see a familiar language from a body involvement point of view. Of course I look at it and have passion for it. However, I’m attracted to photography as a foreign mode of operating. The more I develop an eye for it, the more I see the photographer rather than the subjects captured. An accomplished photographer’s work can read to me as teachings, for the ways they move in the world, their impulses, the instances their sensitive to. The body is involved differently and that difference is what allows me to transcend as a painter.
It’s interesting that as a painter you talk about an artistic medium that in many ways stands closest to what you do, as well a medium that has grown exponentially within the last years. There seems to be some kind of active anxiety within, alluding to the hyperextension of digital imagery in comparison to the evidently regressive production of painting.
Yes, heavy production of digital images make me anxious! For one thing, it encourages a thought system wherein if an image wasn’t taken of an event, it must not have happened. It doesn’t appear in the collective conscious. Throughout time, empires manipulated force of strength using also their visual identity: the face on a coin, a statue, an icon or lack-of. One was able to identify conquered territories with visual keys and ornaments. Now we have branded and commercial photographs doing the same for nations, and social media reinforces these archetypes by imitation. I think painters are ever more necessary. It’s still the medium with the largest field of visual possibility with access to our humanity. To be a painter on the internet today is probably a new form of anarchy.
Are there moments of daily human life that you find especially moving and inspiring? I imagine you spent a lot of your time observing people, things.
Courage in daily human life is always inspiring, when someone is vulnerable but unflinching. I’m moved by expressions that are many moods at once. Empathy mixed with pain and embarrassment, fear and appetite, generosity and guilt are other examples. I can’t pinpoint an exact body language, but it’s never an overt display. The body language can be quite ordinary but the film of human emotion emanating from the person is what makes them noticeable.
What’s the a last moment you consider particularly memorable?
It involved the eyes, an unspoken “me too.” Like we both got abducted by aliens but could never talk about it.
interview LARA KONRAD
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