The Moody Urban Art Noir of Karin Perez
The late John Russell, who served for many years as the chief art critic for both the The New York Times and The Sunday Times of London, called the modern city “one of the great subjects of the twentieth century,” and the same holds true for the twenty-first century as well. That said, few contemporary artists capture the darker aspects of the urban miasma as atmospherically as the Israeli painter Karin Perez, whose work was featured recently in an exhibition at the Ico Gallery, in Tribeca, and can also be seen on her website, karin-perez.com.
The first thing that strikes one about Perez’s acrylic paintings on canvas and mixed media works and prints in the series she calls “Urban Subjects / Gravity & Non Gravity” is their powerful graphic quality, apparently inspired to some degree by the high contrast tones and formal simplifications of Russian poster designs of the 1920s and ’30s. In this regard, Perez seems a peer of artists such as Sue Coe, Eric Drooker, and Anton Van Dalen, all of whom emerged from the East Village scene of the 1980s and were inspired by the funkier aspects of their then pre-gentrified environment.
Perez, however, has her own unique and perhaps more far-reaching slant on city subjects, in her paintings and prints of locales from Manhattan to Tel Aviv. And her approach is more existential than social realist, having stated that she is interested in “the individual in the urban environment, the solitude in packed places” where “one is always lonely, even when he is surrounded by loved ones.”
The crisis of perpetual solitude is invariably at the heart of Karin Perez’s art, wherein the human figure is reduced to an isolated silhouette, slipping like a shadow between the cracks of looming architectural monoliths. The sense of existential dread is especially eerie in her acrylic painting “High Density,” where the lone silhouetted figure is outlined in red (as in a “red alert”?) and dwarfed by grim gray buildings set against a toxic red and orange sky. Like John Hultberg, who earned a well-deserved reputation as a maverick during the Abstract Expressionist era with his paintings of strange terrains and haunted landfills, Perez is a poet of desolation whose work appears to embody visually F. Scott
Fitzgerald’s famous statement: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning...”
Indeed, hand-drawn words (“drawn” as opposed to “written,” since her large block letters, like literal concrete poetry, are as substantial as her buildings) often appear as integral elements of her compositions. Some pose existential questions such as “WHY NOT?” or “WHAT AM I?” Other semiotic text fragments, such as “NO GRAVITY ZONE,” suggest warning signs in spooky sci-fi environments. The drawn letters in one painting –– in which a tiny red silhouette figure stands on a rooftop overlooking an expansive vista of buildings, trestles, bridges, and other structures –– declare poignantly, “JUST DON'T WANT TO LEAVE.” In another painting, where a lone figure traverses a telephone wire like a tightrope-walker high above the blocky buildings of a dreary residential complex, the block-lettering announces “I THINK WE’VE GOT A PROBLEM.” And in yet another, through the omission of key words (but not the imposition of the question mark one supplies mentally anyway), Perez ironically subverts the lyrics of a Tom Waits song: “AND I THINK TO MYSELF...WHAT WORLD.”
Such wordplay harmonizes auspiciously with a visual inventiveness that combines and reconciles elements of the two modern art movements most diametrically opposed: Cubism and Surrealism. The influence of the former is evident in Perez’s way of structuring her compositions architecturally, while that of the latter makes itself known in the dreamlike quality of her content. Thus she unites the formal with the imaginative in compositions which initially capture one’s attention through their pure visual power, then hold it by virtue of their poetic, thought-provoking imagery.
And while Perez is a splendid painter, adding a sensuous element to her precisely delineated architectural forms with smooth yet sumptuously pigmented surfaces, she is also one of precious few contemporary artists who successfully integrate elements of computer technology into her oeuvre without diminishing its effect. In fact, her urban iconography lends itself auspiciously to digital imaging in prints where she blends mixed media, photography, and computer painting techniques in a seamless synthesis.
For rather than attempting to slavishly duplicate the stark contrasts of her painting style in her prints, she chooses to exploit the new technology for its own unique qualities and capabilities, opening up the space in her compositions and employing elements of superimposition in prints such as “Exit,” where the word of the title appears to float in midair amid complex layerings of architectural structures. In her “Mixed series” in particular, photographic and computer painted imagery merge most auspiciously, with surreal juxtapositions of buildings and figures interacting rhythmically in deep space. Especially notable, for its expression of the visual cacophony, mazelike complexity, and psychological intensity of big city life, is “Mixed series C,” a sequential triptych in which one of her ghostly shadow figures, bathed in the peculiarly eerie light of the computer cosmos, traverses various sites like the last man on earth, seeming to defy gravity and scale rooftops with supernatural ease.
Here, as in all of her paintings and prints on this great theme, Karin Perez creates a vital visual metaphor for how we presently live, strive, and dream in these high tech hives that modern people call cities.
–– Ed McCormack