Not What It Seems
By Jon Lynn McCallum
Intermingling the subconscious with the everyday world, Karen Sullivan creates art steeped in perplexing riddles. Her interest in the psyche began some years ago as a Humboldt State University art student studying Abstract Expressionism, a post-WWII art movement that emphasized the subconscious mind, Jungian psychology, and universal symbols. Embracing these values as her own, Sullivan learned to "let things happen." And since that time, through the years and various events, her work has become increasingly invigorated by the subconscious. Paradoxically, however, her work has also become intensely deliberate. The culmination of these opposing methodologies has resulted in work that is both curious and compelling, showing us, through her artistic maturation, that dreams and reality are not antithetical, but coexist in wonderful, if yet mysterious, harmony.
There was once a time when Sullivan paid little attention to her dreams. But in 1980, when painting abstract landscapes and still lifes inspired by Richard Diebenkorn's 1955-56 shift into representational imagery, she experienced a peculiar dream of a fellow artist walking down a street carrying a painting. The painting was done in vivid colors and featured a life-like lizard with the words "save a lizard from extinction." She shared the dream with her husband, also an artist, who encouraged her to paint the image. Sullivan did, which led to a personal epiphany. Sullivan realized that it was not so much the lizard that needed saving, but rather herself, even noting that the first letters of "save a lizard from extinction" create an anagram of the word "self." Since this experience Sullivan has kept an ongoing journal of her dreams, including both words and sketches, and has also worked with a Jungian psychologist towards interpreting them. Dreams have thus become a source of life and inspiration for Sullivan. "I take my dreams very seriously,” she states.
This seriousness is made evident by the fact that all of the works in this exhibition contain elements from her subconscious. For instance, a baby face, which occurs in many works in the E&F series, is a detail from a dream as well as the head form, which Sullivan calls Igee, made up of a V-shape with eyes. The sense of a room found in the E&F series also comes from a dream, including the row of boxes that drops down from the top center of the picture plane. In speaking of these boxes, Sullivan recalls, "I woke up one morning and all of a sudden - poof! - these forms just came down from the ceiling and I saw them and thought, oh my gosh, I am going to have to incorporate them into the work." As seen in these cases, such instantaneous moments may go on to affect her work for years and years as Sullivan reincorporates various elements from her subconscious into new work.
These elements, which have become so characteristic for Sullivan, may never have become prevalent if she had not experienced a critical moment that "totally changed [her] life." In 1992 she had taken some work to a highly respected art consultant in Los Angeles. Sensing that it was too extrinsic, the consultant was unimpressed. The work lacked personality. "Where's the intrinsic?" the consultant asked. Somewhat deflated and sensing it was time to leave, Sullivan remembered she had brought a folder containing slides of her doodles. She did not really think of them as "art," but decided to let the consultant see them regardless. "Now this," the consultant enthused in response, "is art." The encouraging feedback inspired Sullivan to be more personal and carefree with her work, to "let things happen" on an even greater level.
In "letting things happen," often the dream comes first for Sullivan with the art following, but this is not always the case. Sometimes the art comes first through an approach known as automatic drawing where her subconscious is allowed free play. A work readily displaying this method is Yellow Falls, 2008. At about eight feet high and six and one half feet wide, Yellow Falls is made up from a collection of hundreds of post-it notes that cascade out from the wall, each note featuring doodles created by Sullivan while she was on the telephone. As the conversations occupied a certain part of her mind, her hand was allowed to doodle freely; she was not cognizant of what she was drawing. Predominantly drawn in pencil and black and red ink, the notes bear the everyday responsibilities of life: appointment times, phone numbers, birthday reminders, and bills due. But commingled among them are extraordinary figures, designs, and forms; the day-to-day world and the dream life unite on the everyday material of post-it notes. Yellow Falls reminds us that not only do these two antagonistic worlds coexist, but that they are in conversation, each influencing the other – a major intention underlying Sullivan's art in general.
Through the incorporation of dreams, automatic drawing, and to some degree style, Sullivan's work can be linked to Surrealism, an art movement that began in the 1920s and was influenced by the psychoanalytic discoveries being made by Sigmund Freud. Sullivan's work, for instance, shares many characteristics with surrealist Paul Klee's Twittering Machine, 1922, through its simplicity of line, vibrant color, and curious figures. However, Sullivan claims to be more influenced by one of Klee's contemporaries, Joan Miró, whose colors, being more muted and earthy, as well as his emphasis on biomorphic shapes, tend to relate better to Sullivan's work.
But more importantly comparable to Klee and Miró, the works of Sullivan bear a fun and whimsical quality while also possessing something mysterious, even unsettling, about them. This can be exemplified by the E&F series, which concerns interpersonal relationships, often accentuating a dichotomy of good guy versus bad guy. One figure acts on another, but there is a certain ambiguity. Sullivan's E&F Series #19 - Black Pig, 2005, for example, shows a pig, a figure Sullivan has used since the late 1990s as a representation of innocence. But while the overall image seems pleasant and calm with its pink and orange background, the other figure, stretching forth a long, black arm to grab the pig is worrisome. And what are those peculiar forms in the scene? What is happening here? "Something," answers Sullivan, "is going on. I want to the viewer to feel that sense of mystery and maybe a slight unease about what is going on." She gives us a sense of story, yet she offers no explicit narrative. She prefers a kind of "dance" between the art and viewer, presenting for us complicated puzzles to solve. It is in this dance where much of Sullivan's magic can be discovered.
Whereas the magic of the E&F series regards relationships, the Diver series is directed more globally: fuel shortages, environmental problems, poor economy, chaotic politics, unreliable media, and so on. But Sullivan notes that these two areas of issues are not mutually exclusive. "The world has many layers," says Sullivan. It can seem "candy-coated" with a sense of "looming darkness." However, Sullivan contends that there are also layers of great beauty. She recalls spending many of her childhood weekends and summers at a cabin near Redway, CA, close to the Eel River. But the memory is bittersweet for the once vital river has since abated and the cabin has been bulldozed to the ground, leaving Sullivan feeling a sense of loss and grave concern over our mismanaged world. Arriving at a point a few years ago where she could no longer keep from integrating these conscious issues into her work, the Diver series has become a way for Sullivan to address the "scary and ominous." She sometimes wrestles drawing them out, putting them down on paper; the problems of the world are difficult to bear. However, this critical exercise results in a sort of dreamy enchantment, seen in the gentle color and clear lines of her work, coalescing with a matter-of-fact chaos, seen in the strange figures and arrangements, the unresolved tension between the two contributing to the mystery.
Perhaps one of the explanations behind Sullivan's love for conundrums is the fact that her mother was skilled in the use of coded language. Sullivan's mother was a stenographer for her father, a lawyer, and could write beautiful shorthand, a type of writing made up of abbreviations and designated symbols, useful for speedily documenting such things as business meetings and court trials before the advent of tape recorders. As a child Sullivan would often see notes of shorthand about her home, her parents using them as a way of keeping her "out of things." Yet the mystery only intrigued her, which is precisely what the coded language of Sullivan's work does for us, both figuratively and literally. Some of Sullivan's pieces actually feature bits of stenography collaged directly onto the canvas, as in Llama Longing #8, 2003, whereas other works bear a word or phrase written by hand. Adding to the enigma, these words are sometimes partially obscured or erased. "I definitely like mystery in art," she confirms.
Although Sullivan's mysteries are greatly influenced by the subconscious, it is important to know that they are also very considered. A dream or a doodle may inspire a beginning, but there remains "erasing constantly, reworking constantly" in order to get it "right." Sullivan usually creates preparatory studies in gouache on eight and a half by eleven inch paper. She was inspired to use gouache after seeing the work of Frank Lobdell (1921–) and she loves the freedom of its water-based, opaque quality, allowing her to put paint down, wipe it off, to work and rework. Once the perfect composition is realized, Sullivan may then make the final piece with acrylic paint on larger paper, usually around two and a half feet high by three and a half feet wide, as seen in both the E&F and the Divers series. The size is important as she wants the work to have presence, but if the size is too large, it loses the magical quality of glimpsing into another world. And while acrylic is preferred because of its durability, achieving the same colors in a different medium can be quite challenging. Also, there is a concentrated effort to maintain the precarious balance between whether her work is painting or drawing. While she does use paint, she paints on paper, which is then mounted on unusually thin stretcher bars and left without a frame, making the painting more like a drawing. And her purposeful choice of soft color allows her line work great emphasis. "I want the lines to stand out because I love line," she says. "I love drawing – that's the main thing I love. I love color, too, [but] I know that the line will be sacrificed if I get [the color] really loud."
Pulling these elements together, the subconscious with thoughtfulness, the paint with line, the playfulness with seriousness, the global with the personal, Sullivan creates art that not only incorporates dream, but is, in itself, a fulfillment of a dream. Her mother had given her a Raggedy Ann book when she was four years old. She loved the pictures, particularly the images of a train, which inspired her to make her own train from cardboard. She was always wanting to make something magical as a child, to create another world that one could enter into. And now, speaking many years later, she could not help but note that the shapes of her large acrylic works were similar to the shapes of the Raggedy Ann boxcars. Her childhood dream has been realized; each of Sullivan's works is an enchanting world just waiting to be entered.
Interviews with artist conducted at the artist's studio in Eureka, CA on July 23, September 11, and December 4, 2008.
Jon Lynn McCallum is an intern in the Museum and Gallery practices Program at Humboldt State University. © 2009, Humboldt State University. All rights reserved.