When I visit her studio, Alexandra Karakashian tells me that her paintings "give pause." In a painting, on the floor, a big black dot pierces an otherwise bare painting like a full stop. A punctuation into which I sink. The mark is made with old engine oil, and when I lean in close to pose it questions – What part of you died for us? What does the earth taste like1 – all I hear is years and years. Oil, which is made by time but cannot be made in ours, slows down the pace of my eye. My eye stops. I wait for the oil to make its first move. I watch. The oil seeps. Over the course of an afternoon, the painting proves that it is as alive as I am. In the pause, my heart beats ten thousand times. My time is ticking. The painting's is not. This mark, this pool, this darkness – it will outlive me.
In the face of this timeline, language flails. Emotions surface and bleed into one another: sleeplessness and sanctuary, moving and amassing, crisis and consolation. Certain memories, mine and not mine, fray the edges of my thoughts: two mothers about to go under the knife; a young boy about to jump to his death in the water. I feel like the darkness is trying to tell me a story about precarity, but then it topples over into silence. To write, I borrow passages from my heroes:
We have no word for this darkness, this darkness which is very closely connected with light. We have no word for this darkness. It is not night and it is not ignorance. Maybe from time to time we all cross this darkness, seeing everything, so much everything that we can distinguish nothing. Maybe it is the interior from which everything came–.2
In the studio, beside the paintings, light takes up space on our faces, and Karakashian tries to tell me about the unknown. The paintings are concerned with this – the unknown – but it is difficult to describe. The moment the unknown is uttered it takes the shape of your mouth, becomes known. Our conversation is full of stops and starts. It embodies a reach for the unknown.
I take a second look at the bare canvas which surrounds the dark mark. It too embodies a reach for the unknown. It is the nothingness upon which the painter blasts light. The silence toppled into. For each time I say it is, the unknown retorts:
Other paintings, smaller ones on paper, are made by Karakashian applying layers and layers of oil and then wiping them off. The resulting images appear ghostly. They are ghostly insofar as they suggest that one could simply apply a wet sponge to the present and cut through to expose the past beneath. Years ago, when I lived in a house with witches, they instructed me to sprinkle salt so as to ward off haunting. Whether the salt was meant to wound the ghost or protect the house, I never knew. When Karakashian sprinkles salt on the ghostly paintings, I don't know whether the salt is meant to wound the painting or protect the viewer; or, perhaps, to protect the painting and wound the viewer. Again, I arrive at the crux of crisis and consolation. Suspended between these poles, I receive Karakashian's gift: balance.
This is why Karaskashian does things like paint on the back of a canvas, exposing its frame. It is like a body showing bone. Or wraps the canvas around the frame and leans it against the wall. It is like a body curled unto itself. Or takes an armful of failed paintings and piles them on top of one another, names the work anew. All these, a sort of death. In death, the paintings are given new life. This restores balance to the painting whose life is inglorious... hatched in brilliant daylight, exhibited under artificial light, sold in the shade, and tends to die in darkness.3 Karakashian's palette reflects a desire to break this cycle. She shines a light on the paintings that tend to die in darkness; exposes the darkness of those in the light.
That the very act of looking at a painting could restore its balance might seem fanciful. This is because intellectualising is swift, while looking takes time.
I look at the marks and the emptiness, the dark and the light. I am in balance and alive with mystery.
1 James Webb, A Series Of Personal Questions Addressed To 5 Litres OfNigerian Crude Oil, 2020. Available here.
2 John Berger from a MACBA video tape, quoted by John Christie, I Send You This Cadmium Red... (Barcelona: Actar, 2000), 75.
3 Sean O'Toole, "On Vusi Mbulali," in review, 2021.
Press release courtesy SMAC Gallery.