Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Karen Kettering Dimit and Damien Hirst: A New York State of Mind

In February I paid a visit to the Long Island City studio of my friend and fellow SAMA member Karen Kettering Dimit. An artist who uses mosaic as both a principal material in framed pieces and as a way to add color, texture, and meaning to some of her sculptural work, Karen works in a spacious third-floor space in a loft building filled with artist studios. The sunlight streams in through huge windows and the elevated train rumbles by at regular intervals.

One room of the studio is set up for display of completed pieces and storage of materials; a second room is a well-outfitted work space, anchored by sturdy tables and ringed by all manner of tools and equipment for cutting and polishing marble and mosaic making.

On entering the studio, my eye is drawn to a collection of powerful stone sculptures in the classic mode, most set above contrasting mechanical platforms. Karen has been sculpting in stone for a decade. The forms—depicting partial torsos, heads, and body parts emerging in polished perfection from the raw stone—are pared down, elegant, abstract. The size makes them easy to relate to; most are small enough to wrap one’s arms around. As a group, the sculptures are undeniably beautiful and invested with meaning. They evoke something lyrical, dreamlike, and timeless. Karen explained how she came to sculpture through an immediate connection to the material itself. “The stone just spoke to me, and said ‘do something.’” She answered that call with an awesome energy, insight, and talent. Some of the sculptures are deeply personal, tributes to loved ones facing illness and decline, but every piece conveys dignity and strength.

The sculptural work of Karen Kettering Dimit as displayed in her LIC studio. 
Given my interest in mosaics, I was eager to see the project on her work table: a new mosaic panel in her series depicting NYC water towers, those iconic structures that dot Manhattan’s skyline, perched atop every city building taller than six stories. Karen calls the series “a mosaic sketchbook,” because within the context of the project she uses her gifts as a mosaicist to address fundamental questions of form, composition, perspective, scale, color, texture, light and shade. She incorporates both humble and exquisite materials in these small-format framed panels. The newest mosaic in the series—a study in black, grey, and white, with a stormy sky—is a perfect example of Karen’s sensitive handling of materials.

Karen surrounded by smalti and minerals as she works on NYC Water Towers XII, a mosaic-in-progress. 

A few pieces from the series "NYC Water Towers: A Mosaic Sketchbook."
Another area of focus—one combining her feminist perspective with her interests in sculpture and mosaics—is her Subway Goddess Pageant series, a collection inspired by ancient sculptures of powerful women. With wit and imagination, Karen weaves together anthropology, history, and social commentary as she reimagines these totemic female forms as contemporary New Yorkers. Each modern goddess has a distinct personality and is posed above a smaller stone carving of its historic counterpart. The ancient goddesses—simple and unadorned—suggest a powerful life force; the subway goddesses—clad in exquisitely detailed mosaic that rewards careful inspection—suggest the vanity and materialism of today’s culture.

Karen with Miss Cyclades 2009. 
All of Karen’s artwork shows a thoughtful, disciplined mind at work and suggests the rewards that come from deep exploration of a single theme. This is what distinguishes a true artist: not just the production of art but the investment of meaning.

For more on Karen and close-up images of her art, see

Following lunch at LIC Market, a great café a couple of blocks from the studio, we took a short subway ride back to Manhattan, to Chelsea, where we spent the rest of the afternoon cruising the galleries. One destination was the Gagosian Gallery, which was featuring a major installation of the Damien Hirst spot paintings from 1986-2011. I had seen four paintings in this series at an exhibition at MOMA a few years ago, but now Karen and I were surrounded by dozens of canvases in a variety of configurations: thousands and thousands of precisely painted circles of color, some huge, some minute.

Damien Hirst
, Phe-Tyr, 2004, 
Household gloss on canvas,
140 x 156 inches  

© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2011.
Image courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Standing in this sea of color, I found myself mesmerized by the power of spots taken to an exponential dimension. We wandered through the rooms, getting lost in the paintings, enjoying the visual phenomena and marveling at their variety and complexity, given how simple the content is. I found enjoying the exhibition much more than I expected to—who could be immume to this color riot?—yet on the whole felt irritated at the artist himself. Hirst had come up with the big concept—creating a structure through which he could “pin down” the joy of pure color—and set the parameters for the program, but after he worked this series for some time he evidently became bored and moved on to other things. However, the public demanded more of his easy-to-like spots. And so more were produced. However, now after a certain point he turned the painting over to his assistants who made the creative decisions regarding the color sequences.

As someone who is deeply engaged mentally and physically with every minute decision in the course of making a mosaic, Hirst’s practice seems outrageously detached. I want to see the artist’s own hand in the final work, not feel the task of painting itself has been outsourced. It’s easy to dismiss Hirst as a relentless self-promoter, more showman than artist. Yet as much as I wanted to dislike the show for these reasons, I had to admit that the paintings themselves spoke to me, particularly when assembled in a large group and exhibited under ideal conditions. It was not only that spending time in a precisely ordered, color-rich universe lulled me into bliss. It was that a study of the series suggested once again the notion of the artist as problem-solver, the value in maintaining focus on a narrowly defined subject and mining it exhaustively. Not repetition. Penetration.

Andy Warhol was a visionary, a true original who set art on a new course. Yet much of his art was series-based and produced under workshop conditions. Do I respect him less for it? On the contrary, I accept his concept of multiples and all its implications and see it as central to his vision.

How will history judge Damien Hirst? A question to ponder as the Tate Modern in London gets ready for the artist’s first major retrospective, opening in April.