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Life on Mars Gallery: Karen Schwartz’s “Down the Rabbit Hole”



In their current exhibition — and in keeping with the gallery’s mission — Life on Mars Gallery continues to remind us that painting is still relevant in the age of digital media. Currently on display through May 31 is Karen Schwartz’s first solo exhibition, titled Down the Rabbit Hole.

The title of the exhibit is a reference to the artist’s mother’s sudden illness and passing last year. Schwartz describes the experience as akin to “…falling down a rabbit hole into an unbelievable and wholly different relation to life and death”. It is a sensation effectively captured throughout this body of work.


Schwartz counteracts the heavy psychological import of the figures in her paintings with the use of lighter colors and elements of absurdity. Her paintings are richly textured with layers of oil or acrylic, and scrapes of pigment stuck to the surface of the canvas intrude upon three-dimensional reality. Paint-resisting agents assist in the dripping and running of colors, and her brushstrokes range from smeared to hard-edged.


Where do Schwartz’s paintings fall in the spectrum of modern and contemporary art? Robert C. Morgan, in his essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, contends that Schwartz’s work is more accurately equated with Abstract Expressionism than with 1980s Neo-Expressionism. Despite the apparent references to Joyce Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Schwartz’s figurative imagery lacks the cynicism of Neo-Expressionism, and is more incidental than intentional.

May 2015 by Danielle Burnham

“Down the Rabbit Hole” by Karen Schwartz (2014)

The essence of Abstract Expressionism lies largely in the artist’s approach to process. Schwartz’s is an instinctual one, where figures take shape on their own: “It was just there, for me to see and let be. When I saw it, I knew the painting had found its form and was finished.” In her paintings, abstract forms spontaneously evolve into human figures, animals, and cultural icons — and then begin to back down from visible recognition, frightened, half-forced back into abstraction, and absconding with any potential narrative connection to Carroll’s Alice series.


In Morgan’s essay, he proffers on behalf of the artist that “[her images] arrive often without a clear sense of meaning and without the concise methodology in pursuit of their meaning”. Schwartz looks for meaning in the forms that take shape before her as she engages with the canvas, but does not ascribe any predetermined symbolic value to the figures in her work.


It is interesting to speculate whether Schwartz’s painting is influenced by her work as a practicing psychotherapist. Per Morgan, “…her work is less about illustrating psychoanalytic theory, which plays an ancillary role, than about what she discovers in the act of painting”. Through painting, as through psychotherapy, Schwartz seeks to tap into what she calls “unformulated experience”, but Morgan affirms that she is clear about the distinction between art and psychotherapy.


"Pink Lady" by Karen Schwartz (2014)

“I listen intensely as a therapist with a third ear and react mostly with words; when I’m doing art, I look intensely with my eyes to find meaning…” For Schwartz, “[her] hand is like an organ of the […] process”: in psychotherapy she doesn’t look down when taking notes, in order to connect with the patient; in painting, her hand probes her understanding of what is taking shape before her, and what unfolds is beyond her control.


Life on Mars Gallery is located at 56 Bogart St, at the corner of Seigel St.
For info: 718.417.3935 /



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