Karen Heagle

Karen Heagle visited by Nick Naber

Karen and I met a few years ago through our mutual friend Paul. I saw Karen's exhibition of Battle Armor at the now defunct Churner and Churner gallery in Chelsea. I was intrigued by her painting style, and the deeper meaning that those paintings held. I ran into Karen a few weeks ago when I was walking around galleries in Chelsea, and we got to talking about her upcoming exhibition at On Stellar Rays with Kate Gilmore. I knew Karen's work had changed a bit and really wanted to take a look at what she was doing in her studio. The following is our conversation about her new work, and a bit about what her and Kate will be doing in January.

I remember the show that you had at Churner and Churner.


And those were the knights; the battle armor.

Yeah the battle armor, yeah.

Battle Armor II, 2012,  acrylic, ink, collage, gold and copper leaf on paper, 51.5 x 52 inches

And so these are painted similarly but the new work is different.

The armor came off and it evolved and I knew that when I was working on the battle armor paintings that it was going to continue to evolve.  The battle armor works evolved from 2011 when I did a show at I-20 gallery that was a lot of work based on familiar still life painting like a lot of Belgian vanities still life painting.

Yeah, all of this symbolism like the strange sexuality that they had to them.

I wasn’t even thinking consciously about the undercurrent of sexuality in those paintings because I just take that for granted. But that's a part of those paintings. I was drawn to the dead carcasses.

Yeah there's something kind of erotic about that too.

Totally! But there’s a whole kind of conversation that led me to look at those kind of paintings that I'd had with a dealer at the time who was asserting that the reason that my work was hard to understand therefore maybe not as collectible was that it didn't aspire to good taste.


And I thought that that was an interesting thing to say.

That's a really strange comment.

I decided to make it a project to kind of decide what is good taste.  For some reason I decided that Chardin's paintings were supposed to be representative of good taste. I'm sure in the day that he was making these paintings they were not considered good taste-dead animals hanging in the studio?  But all the years have gone by; therefore it's assimilated taste or something.

The idea that over time it becomes like this accepted form.

I guess that's what the moral of the story might be. I decided that that was going to be my reaction to good taste. On the topic of the Chardin painting—(looking up the work on my phone) I decided that this painting was going to be my emblem. I did my own version of that painting and I added my lava lamp to it.  I decided to put my lava lamp in there because a lava lamp to me was kind of like the pinnacle of bad taste.

It's like that kitschy thing that everybody wants.

Yeah. Around the same time I was also thinking that there’s a kind of taste level associated with queerness, embracing bad taste, and I feel like throwing a lava lamp in this kind of revision of Chardin was queering the whole painting in this particular kind of way. It was kind of gay to put a lava lamp in the tasteful still life.

Well, it's what one would associate with a swinger lifestyle of the 60s and 70s.

And these days when you have a lava lamp in your house you're kind of being retro. I was a kid then. I’m bringing the 70s realness back.  On the topic of good vs. bad taste did you go to the Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt’s show he at P.S. 1?

I didn’t see the show.

But you know his work? You should check out his work because he is amazing.  He stated: “Good taste is the final refuge for the unimaginative.”

That's pretty good.

Yeah.  He’s was at the Stonewall riots, he is in the famous pictures. When I went to Skowhegan in 1997, Tommy was one of the visiting artists there.  I was doing paintings that were kind of pop culture and kind of fucked up. But I was working this out. This is back in 1997 this is the summer that the O.J. trial was going and I was working on a painting of Marcia Clark. It was supposed to be this kind of sexy painting of Marcia Clark.

That's a tough thing to do.

From a particular lesbian’s point of view not so much. But you're right. At the time I was totally kind of crushing out on her. The summer that I was at Skowhegan there were a lot of people from California from L.A. and a lot a lot people from New York.  I was doing a painting of her smoking a cigarette and it said, “I love you too Miss East”(as though she was crushing back at me or the viewer).  It was taken from a cowgirl magazine comic. Basically, when Tommy saw that painting he was trying to get me to go further with it. When I look back I was being somewhat safe in my parameters of how I was going to depict (my crush on) Marcia Clark.

Marcia Clark, 1997, oil on canvas (transfer from bad slide),  60 x 61 inches

You have certain rules set up for yourself?

When you’re a painter there’s a certain feeling that you want to be taken seriously in the history of painting.

There's something about the idea of what craft or the way that you're supposed to make a painting after being in school or whatever. It’s always in the back of your mind how you're supposed to make a painting.

It’s also the bravado of it all too.  That really has nothing to do with it.

It’s also this history of painting being masculine. 

I always thought of myself as kind of like a man, I’m painting so therefore who cares what your gender or your sexuality is.  But then when I moved to New York I became aware of feminism and there was a huge- major show of Frida Kahlo at the Met.  I had never heard of her until I saw that show.  It blew my mind away.  She was painting all these deeply personal things that I kind of identified with on a certain level and I thought, “wow this is really intense.” The show blew the roof off the whole idea about feminism and painting for me.

It opened the door.

I mean it opened the doors and made me examine discrimination.  When I was in college in Wisconsin. I had a teacher (male) look at what I was painting and say, “She’s pretty good for a girl.” All I heard was the ‘pretty good’ part. Then that “for a girl part” was lingering but I kind of chose to ignore it. But then years later when I played that comment back in the “tape in the head” — I'm like, “for a girl?” This was putting qualifying remark on me like somehow I wasn't good enough. The awareness of that radically changed my viewpoint.

I think that's an important point because even today it's still like, “Oh, you should take a look at these super feminist paintings.” People are creating a lot of other structures around work, which in some ways could be positive or in some ways could be negative.

Right, exactly right.  There's just such a thing in culture where women are presumed inferior.


A long time ago I think we lived in a more matriarchal world, and I mean like a long long time ago.

Ancient times.

Why can't that come back? I think it becomes about reviewing the fact that women are powerful and that we are not deficient. Once that kind of movement starts to happen— but then as demonstrated with the recent election —there’s a certain sector of women who depend on the patriarchy being in place that can't even imagine what the world would look like without it!

Totally. I'm currently looking at your paintings of the nude men and nude women.

What you were saying makes total sense because in some ways the paintings are about objectification but they're also very powerful. I find it compelling that the men have their eyes closed. The women are fully aware and alert. I find that interesting. The poses of the men are passive where the poses of the women they're much more present than the men are.

I definitely was thinking about ideas of objectification with these pieces.  Those figures are taken from porn. The one on top is from an old Playboy. I used to use this stuff often for source material and I kind of decided a while ago that it was bad. It's objectification of women.  I had been doing some work years ago that was kind of reinterpreting pornography from a lesbian point of view. Questioning the ideas of desire. Wondering where the gaze is - who owns it-the whole thing.  Where are you (the viewer)— are you establishing your own gaze? I think that that's something you're picking up on. These are studies; I don’t know if they are complete thoughts on anything they're just kind of like musings.  

Can you talk a little bit more about the vulture that appears in your work?

Yeah, it's a repeated form.

I'm about to do a two-person show at On Stellar Rays Gallery (opening January 8th) with Kate Gilmore. She's doing a sculptural performance work. I'm going to do an installation of paintings that seem to me almost like the set design. It’s not necessarily only a backdrop it's conversation with Kate’s work.

That's a part of the entire scene. It's not just a backdrop.

Right, part of the whole, it’s a collaboration on one level, an evolving process and I think it will be interesting. I’m curious to see how it will come together in the space.

 The vulture, OK …This is from 2008. This is kind of where it all started. Well it was a little bit before that but this is where I went with it. At this point I was thinking of it as erotic you know -maybe in a way eluding to the baser aspects of your humanity.  In retrospect looking at these I was reacting to the moment before the economy crashed in 2008. Part of it was growing out of working at the gallery and seeing these increasingly obscene interactions with people and art and money.

I remember -was it -August 2008 and I was working on the show. I was riding the train home and somebody was reading the Financial Times and the headline was, “The End of Abundance.” That resonated with me enough that I titled one of the paintings in the show after it.  I don't think I realized it concretely because there's a lot of intuitive stuff that goes into the work; it’s more about reacting to what's going on in the world.  It gets channeled into the work. A lot of this year was surrounding this election. A lot of the rhetoric that was going on around in terms of misogyny and hatred directed at difference.  Grappling with everything to what you would read in The Times or what you would read on Facebook, it was just insane. I was trying to escape it.  I thought I couldn’t wait till this is over. I thought, like a lot of other people, that Clinton was going to win and this thing was going to be over. But instead it keeps going and it just keeps going and it keeps going the nightmare continues and it kind of gave a particular flavor to all the imagery and I think that that will come across in the exhibition.

Vulture with Carcass, 2008, acrylic and ink on paper, 54 x 51.5 inches

With the vulture there's a lot of symbology, most of which is applicable to now.

While I've been doing my searches for imagery, I found myself looking at the “Book of Revelations” in the Bible. There's all kinds of references to vulture's in the “Book of Revelations” for example: (looks it up on phone)  “Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he cried out to the birds flying overhead “come gather together for the great supper…so that you may eat the flesh of kings, of mighty men, of horses and riders…” That brings us to your original question:  you asked about the battle armor stuff.  Just after the Battle Armor show, my partner said that when she dies she’d like to have a sky burial. I was like, “what's a sky burial?” Answering this unleashed a whole interest in the ritual of sky burial. Do you know what a sky burial is?

I don't.

They happen a lot in Himalayan countries. The ground is too hard to bury their dead. They have rituals, where the bodies of the dead are chopped into pieces and then they're laid out on a sacred area and then the vultures just come en masse and clean up the bodies. They call this sky burial because as the vultures are consuming the body carrying the remains away, they act as metaphorical messengers to the afterlife.  There are certain connotations about vultures and I always thought of them more as ugly but suddenly I became interested in their sacredness.

They are one of the only animals that have the ability to eat rotted flesh and they can digest it. It's not a problem.

While I'm working on this stuff I keep finding more and more information. My partner, Elizabeth Insogna, who’s also an artist, influences these ideas a lot. There’s an Egyptian goddesses, Nekhbet, who was often depicted in tomb sculptures. The vultures were the protectresses of the underworld or they were thought of as guides to the afterlife. There are so many different cultures in ancient times and these more matriarchal cultures have used that image of the vulture as a powerful symbol.

It seems like it's a rich like animal to use because there are so many different interpretations that can be had from just one animal.

I like to see the different cultural interpretations of it. I like to find ways to direct it a little bit. Kate kept wanting me to be more aggressive with the vultures— I was getting to the point where I was enjoying painting them. I was developing this real affection for them in this unexpected way. So, it was a little challenging to think more aggressively.

For this installation I don't know what will be included on the wall but I've got about 45 little works on paper here.

Is that the typical way that you work as you will make a sketch and then you'll work into a larger thing?

It's very much like art history, where you do all the studies and then you do “the masterpiece”.

This is the sketch I did of that painting. It's a cheetah eating a stomach, and I wanted it to be kind of a beautiful majestic creature at a moment doing this abject looking thing. People have pointed out to me that it's very suggestive or sexual, and I kind of wanted it to be like that too. The stomach, carcass, looks like that weird kind of genital flesh or something. It's ambiguous. It reminded me of his dick, (pointing to the small water color) I was thinking it looks like a carcass.  It's almost hard to put language to it but it's about feeding the baser stuff. It is these necessities that we have, and sexuality being part of that.

Most of the paintings are on paper. I've been thinking about whether or not they are archival. They're fragile when they're on the paper, but that said I think I like the fragility of the paper.

Hunter Moon (Cheetah with Stomach), 2016, acrylic, ink, collage, gold and copper leaf on paper, 66 x 61 inches

There's vulnerability but there's something about immediacy to paper even if it is a finished painting.

Yeah that's exactly what it is.  You can try to channel some immediacy; I mean I think if you get like 10 of these little panels all around you, you’re going to get more immediate.  This vulture over here I've been forcing myself to go really fast. It was hard to not want to be more precious with it, because when you prepare what these panels you feel like you have to do something. It took everything to just put the brakes on.

The pieces that are cut out here do those end up being collaged to a bigger piece? Is this collage work a new thing?

This is a whole new thing.  This is the flayed ox. It's based on the Rembrandt Flayed Ox, this painting was driving me crazy for like three years ago.  I just decided fuck this background and I cut the whole background out and I thought, “Oh wow now it really feels like a side of meat hanging here in my studio.”

It's also something that is real when you're making a painting and the background pisses you off.  When it’s on paper you can cut it out and it becomes more of an object in the space but it also still feels like a painting because there are areas that you left.

The flayed ox becomes a metaphor for the canvas. The flayed ox hangs here on a beam that's almost like your canvas on an easel. Kate was looking at one of these other paintings and said, “what if we cut the vultures out of that painting and you could have four separate vultures—that lead to these cut-out vultures. I want to paint it and then I'm going to cut out the rest of it. Yeah and I think this vulture is really in attack mode.

It's definitely in attack mode but and you're using like you're using acrylic right. But then the water down like in these smaller works or is that water.

It’s a mix of water-based material. What I've been doing since 2011, I started collaging color Canson paper into the paintings- kind of a way of erasing certain areas. If I paint it and I don't like the way it’s looking or for whatever reason- I'll cut out a shaped color and I try to work out layering with it. The acrylic paint, the watercolor, all of these water-based things are relatively transparent. You can build them up - I do like the transparency of them, I try to use the colored paper as a ground kind of make the color read differently.

This one here has a big piece of red paper here then I painted it with this sepia calligraphy ink. It did this weird thing when it dried and it made it look more putrid. I like it when the material conveys that putridness.  With this work I wanted the stomach to kind of look smooth and almost appealing, but then still kind of gross.  In a way that's like genitals. In many ways they’re really kind of gross, but at the same time they’re appealing. Then there are also the associations that you make with the feelings associated with them. 

For more information about Karen check out her website or her instagram

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