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Essential Arts: With a zipper, Karen Carson adds sensuousness to chilly minimalism

Greetings from our ongoing pandemic, where we’re all a little bit of Mads Mikkelsen in the Danish dramedy “Another Round.” I’m Carolina A. Miranda, culture and urban design columnist for the Los Angeles Times, rounding up the week’s essential art news — and satirical architecture speak:

Minimalism, but make it tingle

For her graduate show at UCLA in 1971, Karen Carson presented a series of works that consisted of simple geometric pieces of fabric — sometimes produced in two or three tones — that were bound together by zippers. These were pinned to a wall and could be manipulated by viewers who were invited to open and close the zippers, changing the shape of the piece in the process.

The works, known as the “zipper” series, take the tropes of minimalism — its remoteness, its chilly control (think of Donald Judd’s stainless steel) — and imbues it with sensuousness. To tug at a zipper is to feel the tingling anticipation of fabric that is about to be shed. Carson cedes that control to the viewer, who with a few pulls, can determine the final form of the work. It is a minimalism of total release.

These works take a hard edge and make it soft. They take an area of art dominated by men and imbue it with feminine craft. (There is no outsourcing to a fabricator here; Carson sews these herself.) And in an age of art with towering carbon footprints — the room-sized installation, the architectural environment — I deeply admire the fact that the zipper pieces can make a bold statement, then be folded up and easily transported to another site.

Of these works, independent critic Dave Hickey told Times contributor Hunter Drohojowska-Philp in 1996: “They were investigating the parochial unctuousness of minimalism with a cosmopolitan irony. They were smart, funny, good-looking and secretly serious.”

A small selection of Carson’s zipper pieces is on view at Gavlak gallery in the Arts District in the solo exhibition “Karen Carson: Middle Ground.” And, I for one, couldn’t be happier to become reacquainted with them. The last time I saw these works was in an exhibition the artist had at Rosamund Felsen Gallery in 2016, where I happened to catch her installing the pieces as I cruised through. Ever since I’ve regretted not writing about that show since the work is so smart and so wry and so wildly under-seen.

It feels like a crime that New York’s Museum of Modern Art doesn’t have one of these in their minimalism galleries. Also, ahem, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles — one of Carson’s hometown institutions.

The show at Gavlak also includes a series of recent works by the artist: bas relief paintings that layer pieces of wood frames to create geometric patterns that are then highlighted with color — colors that evoke Southwestern palettes. (Imagine a Georgia O’Keeffe flower painting that has been exploded, then reassembled in three dimensions out of angular bits of wood.)

As with her zipper paintings, there is a sensuousness to these works. Carson’s brush strokes are visible throughout. In some patches, she saturates the wood; in others, she lets flashes of color shine through. These are objects that are resolutely handmade, not machine-crafted. The patterns seem to evoke interior states of both mind and body — in some cases, women’s bodies and the life forces they contain.

And at a time of so much death, a little female life force is a welcome thing. Do not miss.


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