In Colors: Farrah Karapetian at Von Lintel
Dispatch from Los Angeles
Farrah Karapetian: Stagecraft at Von Lintel Gallery
2685 S La Cienega Blvd (between Alivar and Cullen streets)
January 17 to February 28, 2015
Los Angeles, 310 559 5700
When I was a child my father would delight me by playing Ken Nordine’s word jazz. We’d listen and laugh along with the absurdist poetry delivered in Nordine’s mellifluous baritone accompanied by bebop improvisations, breathy flute trills, the swish of a brush across a snare drum. I’d close my eyes and stare with my ears at the scenes Nordine sketched with words — short, jokey stories brimming with onomatopoeic ornamentation and witty little rhymes. His 1966 album, Colors, is a collection of 34 roughly one-and-a-half-minute vignettes, each characterizing a color with anthropomorphic anecdotes: ecru is a critic, for instance; burgundy is bulging and fat; lavender is an old, old, old, old, old lady.
I thought briefly of Ken Nordine after seeing Farrah Karapetian’s exhibition of new photograms and sculpture, “Stagecraft,” at Von Lintel Gallery. The comparison is perhaps a bit corny, I admit, but there is some correspondence to be found between Nordine’s evocation of colors through words and music, and Karapetian’s evocation of music through shape and color. There are shared elements of playfulness, improvisation and mood; with both, our mind fills in what the eyes do not see. While earlier works alluded to subjects with political weight (portraying riot police, protestors, guns and contraband), this series uses the accoutrements of music and performance as a vehicle to investigate the mutability of perception and the rhythmic possibilities of light, color, and space.
Karapetian began with bronzes and blues — the colors one feels listening to jazz, according to what Karapetian’s father revealed to her about his own sensations when listening to music. In Got to the Mystic (all works 2014), we see her father as a ghostly figure playing a skeleton of a drum kit, his face obscured by the hi-hat; the drum stands and rims and closures and cymbals register a stark white against the ruddy ground of the photogram.
Karapetian’s painstakingly crafted replica of her father’s drum kit — minus the skins and shells, leaving just the armature, the metal lugs, rods and stands — sits in an adjoining room. The cymbals are formed from glass, allowing light to pass through. A spotlight positioned on the floor of the gallery illuminates the sculpture from below, casting its shadow against the wall, and revealing the apparatus at play in Karapetian’s photograms. Many artists go to lengths to conceal their processes, but Karapetian, in the service of transparency, divulges her sources, shows us the “negative.”
The viewer, however, does not get the full experience, rather just a glimpse of how things work. In Three Muses one can clearly see the three bodies in space, but one can only imagine the haptic experience of three people trying to position themselves in a completely dark room, waiting for the flash of light that would inscribe their shadows on the paper. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. Pause. Flash.
Karapetian spoke to me about the primacy of physical interaction in her work, from situating her subjects in the darkened space to the handling of the paper and processing. The viewer sees only the final result, limited to the perspective of the paper itself. We see only what the paper sees, as it mutely records the impression of shadow and light across its surface. It bears other marks, too, though. Around the edges, little fingerprints are indelibly smudged, and the pricks of the push pins that held the paper in place are visible. The prints hold a remarkable texture, impossible to capture in the jpegs you’d see online.
There are bronzes and blues — but also crimsons and yellows and indigos and deep, resonant greens. Yes, resonance: the colors here have it, just like sounds do. Light waves that linger. My memory of the electric greens and cyans of Kräftig — the color is so pure, so saturated and intense — challenges the colors I now see in the digital reproduction of the piece on my laptop and in the exhibition catalogue. Strange, how variable color is in real life and in reproduction. Stranger still, to think of these vibrant greens and blues produced by red and magenta lights. In the darkroom, the gap between perceived and resultant color becomes a playground of improvisation and experimentation, “a very present tense experience,” as Karapetian put it. Like a jazz musician mounting the stage, she may already know the riff, but where the song goes from there will always be a surprise.