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The Work of Carin Carlsson


Ulrika Carlsson

Its legs and umbilical cord in a jumble, a fetus rendered in oil on canvas sits with eyes shut and one hand over its ear, enclosed in a membrane but cut out from its mother’s womb. Based on the remains of an actual dead fetus in Moscow’s State Biology Museum, the larger-than-life portrait in sickly grey and yellow exposes this creature in all its vulnerability. The surrounding surface has the neon yellow hue of a highlighter-pen or the kind of high-visibility vest worn by schoolchildren. Yet this inchoate child is not yet ready to be seen. The sound of a woman’s voice singing a Russian lullaby a cappella recalls the mother whose body would complete the picture and yet is absent.

            This theme of our fragility as presences in the visual fields of others runs through Carin Carlsson’s work, as does the preoccupation with the physical interface between persons and their social and material environments, the membranes that both shield us from the outside and condition our contact with it. In “N.Y. Suite: 23rd Floor,” a view of Manhattan from a high-rise hotel room shows a clutter of buildings crowding each other from the foreground all the way to the horizon, soon becoming indistinct as their colors dissolve into the almost uniform dark rusty brown of artificially illuminated night-time. Most distinct are the myriad squares of yellow—the windows perforating these structures, serving as the most sensitive point of contact between the inner, inhabited domestic world and the outer one from which the city dwellers have sought shelter.

            Though we cannot see her, we sense that the artist is looking out from a floor-to-ceiling window, making her as vulnerable as those others inhabiting the lit-up spaces in this urban vista. Like the frames of light before her, her own window is a point of contact between private and public: mercilessly, it offers her up as an object of scrutiny for others. In this way, the painting serves as the introduction to less realistic depictions, in the same series, wherein the geometric pattern of square windows is inscribed not onto buildings but onto the silhouettes of human bodies. Hunched over, these bodies appear ape-like, recalling the notion of the urban jungle. Here, the relation between building fronts and windows is negated, making the windows black like holes into something unknown, something that perhaps cannot bear to be seen.

            In the social dynamic Carlsson explores, the most powerful person is the one who can be present without being judged, who sees without being seen. “Muslim Woman on Vacation” portrays a woman covered in a burka and sunglasses, with only her hands and feet peering out from the black cloth. Her own sense of power is expressed in her posture, and her designer handbag and the diamond studs on her sandals suggest that she feels attractive quite aside from what strangers in the street think of her. The reason she is covering herself is that her bodily beauty is too valuable to share with just anybody.

            The sculpture series “Ode to Unwanted Noses” projects the likenesses of actual noses which were later reshaped through cosmetic surgery. Extracted from their context, these organs appear to the spectator the way they felt to their owners: extremely visible in their natural imperfection to the point of usurping the rest of the face, indeed the person. Their visibility hid the rest of the human being from view, making their owners felt unseen—and we as spectators literally do not see beyond the noses.

            Like the fetus, this array of of noses continues the series of mock-natural-history exhibitions in Carlsson’s work. Raised up on poles, the noses resemble the fossils of species which are now extinct and preserved only through the care of museums. Real-life noses designed by nature rather than by surgeons, according to current standards of beauty, may soon become as rare as mammoths.

            The artist freezes the soon-to-be obliterated noses to be preserved for posterity, and the same is true of the portraits painted on the basis of close-ups from the TV series “Dallas,” where the actors/characters are given respite from the continuous movement of narrative, resting instead in a single moment and facial expression. When immortalized in this way, the schematic personages which populate the low-brow world of mere entertainment achieve a curious rise in social and cultural status. The paintings resemble portraits of statesmen or other persons of historical stature—or even icons, which are supposed to be illuminated from within, much like TV screens. Equally, the subtitles featured in the images take on the weight of mottos when isolated from the conversational context of the narrative. Yet the original medium is not erased altogether. The portraits include the characteristically curved rectangle of the TV screen along with subtitles and credits, a frame that reminds us of the way this piece of stylized humanity is mediated.

            The face in a natural frame—this time, the car window—recurs in a series of paintings of L.A. drivers. Caught in the semi-private space of their cars—symbols of individual freedom and social status—the drivers are focused on the road ahead and the mechanics of operating the vehicle. Although the subjects are supposedly directing their movements toward chosen destinations through these machines, the paintings—based on photographs—highlights their powerlessness precisely by invading their privacy.   

            Science defines bodily organs by their functions, which can be reduced to the computer language of input/output, and like membranes, every organ has points of entry and exit. “The Beginning of an Abstract Heart” performs this reduction visually as it represents the most symbolically significant organ in a crude computer image with little resemblance to the stylized icon that, outside science, stands for love and life. Heptagons inscribed in one another direct our gaze to a center, the heart of the heart, but finds little there to illuminate the mechanism and power which sustain every human being. The ovals superimposed look like cross-sections of blood vessels, yet how exactly these entrances and exists are connected with the larger structure remains as obscure as the question, in geometry, how a polygon can be perfectly inscribed in a circle.

            Carlsson’s preoccupation with the ways in which our bodies make us vulnerable to others comes to the fore most starkly in “Lego Love,” where men and women built out of Lego bricks are pictured interlocked in various sexual positions, reproducing the obsession with penis size, female orifices, and the mechanics of penetration that characterize pornography. Without any details or idiosyncrasies to these human likenesses, they look like the generic shapes found in the illustrations of instruction manuals. And indeed it is man as species, not individual, that matters for pornography; and its images function precisely as cues—instructions—for the beholder’s imagination.

            In sharp contrast with the abstract paintings of the heart, which are simple to the point of seeming sloppy, too rudimentary to be called art, “Hidden Hearts” is an intricate embroidery of blissful and devoted women. Their dress and hairstyles are as carefully crafted as the work which depicts them, and they are as stereotypically feminine and maternal as embroidery. A single object captivates their attention, and based on their body language we expect this to be a baby. Instead, it is a red blur on the floor beneath them, breaking the rules of composition this depiction has set for itself. The very anonymity of this object throws into relief the maternal devotion—it becomes all the more visible as it cannot be explained by the thing that arouses it, doesn’t melt into it as one coherent situation. We are forced instead to attend to these women whose selfless devotion otherwise negates them, making them disappear into their unpaid and underappreciated labor—that function which defines them to society, and which would make them mere vessels, membranes channeling nourishment to the child.

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