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Vol. 9 No. 1/2 January/February 2005
Julie Karabenick’s Systematic Freedoms
by Vivek Narayanan
Julie Karabenick’s is a careful, unsentimental mind in the midst of self-clarification. In each set of her explorations, one finds emotional depth, unity, and a complex internal conversation between subtly-wrought colors and shapes. The artist has developed a long process by which a work of hers takes hold over several months, from pencil sketches, through long trial-and-error revision on the computer (which, it should be said, does not make the work easier but rather acts as an aid to the unconscious), then a careful mixing of paint for color value then, quixotically, a return to the canvas to apply and actualize the design. If Karabenick’s best early work was piercing and cerebral, concerned with geometry and visual perception, it may be that only with the completion and dissemination of her current “Compositions” series – forty paintings and counting so far – that she will really arrive as a significant artist with a remarkably distinctive, if currently unfashionable, voice.
“Compositions” begins with an attempt at a Mondrianic perfect balance in the early paintings of the series such as Composition 1, but moves very quickly to somewhat different terrain. At first, a distinction between very large and very small or narrow color-shapes emerges. If Karabenick herself does not compose with figure and ground separately in mind— one can see this by looking at pencil sketches for the paintings — the large areas still start by projecting what feels for the viewer like a background interrupted by conglomerations of lesser rectangles; sometimes these conglomerations proliferate around a cross that divides the canvas in four. Beyond the composition, a Karabenick work is an intimate dialogue between both contrasting and nearly identical colors; her palate is far more diverse than that of your average geometric minimalist, but the overall effect of her choices, contrasts and juxtapositions is somehow always restrained, never flashy.
The real heroes of the “Compositions” series, however, are the tiniest: the pesky pixel squares that seem to multiply like little cells in unpredictable ways across the surface of the canvas. A tremendous amount of precise intuition has been crammed into these little squares— they generate minute imbalances that set the painting into a sense of incremental, provisional motion, rather than have it project a prioriperfection. To speak of Mondrian could even be misleading here, because Karabenick slowly tries, over the course of the series, to push as far as she can toward delicate imperfection balanced out in equally delicate ways; and, as the works grow more risky, and teasing, gently inverting all thought of figure and ground, large or small, contrast and similitude, what emerges is not completion or apotheosis, but process: deliberate, increasingly playful, exhaustive. By Composition 40, Karabenick has come out of the tricky woods for a moment, and the painting offers breath, a redemptive lightness. Looking back through the earlier Compositions from this vantage, one is struck by how remarkably varied Karabenick’s investigations have been, given the discipline and formal restrictions she has taken on. It is a mark of her seriousness and legitimate ambition that she has stuck to her guns, and won.