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Embrace of Simultaneous Meanings: Karen Schwartz at Life on Mars

April 29, 2015 By Etty Yaniv

Karen Schwartz‘ paintings in her solo exhibition at Life on Mars conjure a sense of grief with the gusto of life. Equipped with her intense inward gaze as a professional therapist, Schwartz does not shy away from personal references to her mother’s unexpected illness and passing last year. Her canvas surfaces resemble a battleground of mark-making; layer upon layer of intense colors, lines, scrapes and voids, suggesting images of abstracted human figures, animals and sometimes cultural icons.

Opening of Down the Rabbit Hole at Life on Mars

Karen Schwartz in front of  Phoenix of Sheepshead Bay (2014)

Schwartz’s process is highly intuitive and associative. For example, in “Caught by Death’s Arms,” which depicts a woman’s bust and a dark death figure coming out of the ground, the latter was never drawn, nor painted, “It just was there, for me to see and let be. When I saw it, I knew the painting had found its form and was finished,” says Schwartz.

Caught by Death’s Arms by Karen Schwartz (2014)

“Down the Rabbit Hole“ evolved in a similar way. The linear element in what started as a cartoonish painting of an African woman hooking arms with an animal, gradually transformed into the ears of a rabbit. “I left the sunglasses for the Lady Ga Ga-like absurdity that made the woman’s head a suitable companion to the rabbit pals,” she says. The painting is about as mad as something out of Alice in Wonderland, expressing how the sudden terminal diagnosis of her healthy-looking mother impacted the artist and her family. “It amounted to falling down a rabbit hole into an unbelievable and wholly different relation to life and death,” she sums up.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Karen Schwartz (2014)

Schwartz’s personal approach and psychological insight is rooted in her daily experience as a psychologist. She regards therapy and art as different forms of articulating experiences that have not yet been formulated. “I listen intensely as a therapist with a third ear and react mostly with words; when I’m doing art, I look intensely to find meaning with my eyes and then draw or paint.  Tolerance of uncertain outcome, and embrace of simultaneous meanings are part of both painting and doing psychotherapy,” she says.

Furthermore, she notices continuity from one practice to another. In her psychotherapy sessions she takes notes without looking down at the page in order to maintain visual contact with patients, in much the way she does contour drawings. “My hand has become like an organ of the listening process, just as it is entwined with seeing and trying to understand what I draw or paint,” she elaborates. In addition, Schwartz observes that images of her paintings and the emotional experiences they contain come to her when she connects deeply with a patient.

Totemism by Karen Schwartz (2014)

Pink Lady by Karen Schwartz (2014)

In the project room, Margrit Lewczuk’s collages pair well with Schwartz’s paintings. Much smaller and calmer in mood, Lewczuk’s collages utilize media such as markers and color pencils on layered paper. They resemble elegant, textured and richly colored illuminated manuscripts, drawing upon a wide range of references which allude to the merging of different religions and cultures.


At a closer glance, the viewer may decipher images of Assyrian Wall Reliefs, Ukranian Easter eggs and floor tiles from Kiev. For instance, Lewczuk mentions that the image in “Angel“ is inspired by the angels in the corners of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and that the overall repetition in her work is influenced by Russian orthodox chanting. The collages are “like sculptures for me because I cut and weave and dig into them,” she explains. Both Schwarz’s paintings and Lewczuk’s collages invite viewers to get closer and dig in.


Grouping of Kiev Collage by Margrit Lewczuk (2013)

The two exhibitions will be on view at Life on Mars, located at 56 Bogart, until May 31st, 2015.


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