14 . 02 . 20 – 16 . 02 . 20
Cape Town International Convention Centre
Convention Square, 1 Lower Long Street
Cape Town, 8001
Black, Painting, Flag, Monument
Exploring the folds of history in Alexandra Karakashian’s black paintings and installations
By Sean O’Toole
Nearly a decade ago, while she was completing her Master’s degree at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, I visited Alexandra Karakashian in her studio on Orange Street in Gardens. The two poles of her current practice were already materialising. Prompted by her lecturer, artist Julia Clark, Karakashian had begun experimenting with using old engine oil, gunpowder and crushed charcoal as alternatives to conventional painting materials. Something about the unstable and messy plenitude of these materials, especially the seeping oil, suggested a different path to Karakashian, a way to rethink her vestigial paintings of Cape landscapes rendered in traditional pigments.
Over the past decade, through a process of energetic experimentation, Karakashian has distilled these early experiments into a distinctive practice. Her output now comprises variously scaled abstract works on paper and canvas characterised by their lights leaks and occasional snowstorms of white, as well as sculptural installations that variously reconfigure the material properties and formal dimensions of her paintings. Rather than comment on the wrapped, folded and stacked works in her solo booth at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, works that reflect a dynamic shuttling between the flat image and painted object, I want to pause on something else.
“It is difficult to talk about painting,” Karakashian told me in 2013. Painting is also difficult to write about as a critic. Not because it is fundamentally obscure, but rather because of writing’s forensic tendencies: its habits of naming, locating, measuring and qualifying human actions. Take the following passage by art critic Jean Clay on Édouard Manet, which usefully alludes to material conditions visible in Karakashian’s black paintings: “Examining Manet’s paintings (the paintings, not photographs of them), one can see that the artist, as though seeking to overcome in the texture the old distinction between form and background, comes to produce out of it a new surface by weaving, overflowing and overlapping.” Here, as in most critical writing about art, the painted object is produced as much as translated. This is the beauty of critical writing, but also its affliction.
When I recently visited the artist at her walk-up studio on Victoria Road in Woodstock, we picked up where we had left off in 2013. Articulacy in service of persuasion, the art-world panegyric, is still an issue for Karakashian, just less so. “I used to believe I had to explain what I was doing, that I had to box it and theorise it,” she told me. The artists Karakashian admires don’t do this. Instead they speak about what they do, and how they do it. “They have a confidence and bravery in not over-explaining things. I realised I don’t want to do that either, over-explain, and I don’t have to. What I do doesn’t have to make sense. I once thought it would make more sense as time passed, but I have found the opposite to be true. The more I make, the less it makes sense. Being okay with that has really helped me as a painter.”
The feedback offered by Karakashian’s materials, in particular the engine oils, played an important role in arriving at this compromise with her painting’s obscurity, or at least non-verbal opacity. “Physically the black oil is very strong. Everything it touches is covered and turns black. I tried to control it, but was never able to. I found that process to be seductive. I find the colour black very seductive.” The relationship between process and colour is important for an appreciation of Karakashian’s work. The two are narrowly related, but also distinct.
Colour is an important signifier in Karakashian’s paintings and installations. “Black is definitely a space of retreat, a space of the unknown and unfamiliar. Painting is about the unknown. It is something that is unfamiliar and often something that makes me feel completely uncomfortable.” It is, to draw on a piece of Karakashian family lore, a raft pushed out into the uncertainty of the Black Sea. It is colour that evokes the habitual terrors of the modern world, horrors that the artist’s family experienced first hand. Pasted on Karakashian’s studio wall is a text written by her grandfather, Vache Karakashian, who as a child was ensnared in the Armenian genocide. The artist has repeatedly told this story, most forcefully in the 2018 exhibition here they passed, which included a collection of wrapped canvases presented like failed flags.
In the Turkish summer of 1915, a proclamation was posted in Trabzon, a storied merchant city on the Black Sea, declaring that all the Armenians inhabitants had five days to leave their homes. The expulsion was carefully orchestrated. Health officials and customs officers staffed the deportation centres. The deportees, it was officially declared, would be despatched to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, on foot. (In 2014, in a grim rehearsal of history, the few Armenians who had made it to Mosul once again endured murder, theft and worse, this time under the black flag of a radical jihadist group.) Vache, who was born in December 1915, avoided all this.
In July 1915, foreign diplomats reported that bodies of Armenians had washed up in the estuary of the Degirmendere River. (“I did not see anything; I do not know anything,” a Turkish soldier from Trabzon told a judge in 1919.) In all, 35 members of the Karakashian family were slaughtered. Sea and mountains surround Trabzon. Vache’s parents choose the uncertainty of the sea in a small boat. The sea offered no refuge. Giacomo Gorrini, the Italian consul of Trabzon, reported seeing women and children placed on boats that were purposefully capsized. Vache avoided this too. A Russian ship rescued the Karakashian family.
In 2017, as the city of Mosul was being prized from the death grip of the Islamic State, Alexandra Karakashian visited Russia with her father. It was a pilgrimage of sorts to a country that had acquired an outsize importance in the artist’s family biography. Their trip was brief and included visits only to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Their schedule included a stopover at the Hermitage, where Vache’s granddaughter, already primed to the hypnotic intensity of black, saw Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. Not the mythic first painting, exhibited in 1915, but a later, smaller version created sometime in the late 1920s or early 30s, the one supposedly carried behind the artist’s coffin like an anti-icon at his burial in 1935.
Of the multitude of chromatic possibilities open to an artist, black is arguably one of the most bountiful and at the same time unstable colours to work with. Black signifies. It makes us to look in two directions at once: down at the grave to finitude, but also up to the limitless night sky. Black traduces the singular; it is multitudinous and contradictory. This oppositional abundance is worth parsing. Black is the colour of mourning and resistance, of pirates, anarchists and jihadists, also priests, writers and artists. It is the colour of knowledge, even in our post-Guttenberg age. The pigment is how you read me. It records our achievements as a species, and also catalogues our barbarism. Black is the censor’s favourite colour.
Black is sadness, but it is also joyously disobedient. It is the colour of Kerry James Marshall’s exaggerated skin tones in his recuperative paintings of blackness, which are made with black, the name of a colour that Édouard Manet “made light with” according to Matisse. Karakashian makes light with black too. Writing in 2016, art historian Adrienne Edwards correctly proposed that black is an amalgamation of conditions and things: black is “a material, a method, a mode, and/or a way of being in the world, necessitating complex thinking and sensorial engagement on the part of the viewer.” Working consistently and openly with the colour black, Karakashian has developed an open-ended mode of practice that allows for doubt, failure and change. Her solo booth evidences all these possibilities.
Take those narrow apertures of light in her fields of black. Those fragile illuminations have a propensity to close as the oil seeps and black asserts its sovereignty. “I get excited when I see that the paintings have changed. That isn’t failure for me. It means they are still alive and active.” This aliveness is registered in other ways in Karakashian’s current work. Those stacks of folded paper are nominally failed paintings. Their flimsy sculptural form however keys into a larger body of work that reimagines painting as more than simply an expression of action and intention, of focused mark making. Karakashian’s ragged assembly of three-dimensional forms are paintings too, just as they are monuments to stateless wandering and indictments of state-sanctioned amnesia.