Artist Christopher (Kip) Lamberg-Karlovsky’s father is an archaeologist, and as a result, Kip spent some of his earliest formative years on the desert floors of the Middle East. Growing up looking at his father’s excavations, he developed a fascination with “really weathered, ancient-looking surfaces—time-stamped things that have age on them and in them.”
I viewed his paintings recently at Ars Libri (an art book store) in Boston’s South End, and was lucky enough to be personally escorted through them with the artist. Each tiny painted image is mounted inside the center of a black Pelican case. If you pass by Ars Libri’s wall of glass on Harrison Avenue, you’ll see the black cases hanging side by side in a row across a white wall. The cases hang open on the wall, one half dropped down toward the viewer. The Pelican company sells millions of these cases worldwide to various industries. They are used to transport such things as camera equipment, syringes, explosives and guns.
The paintings within these cases are miniature worlds in themselves, some of them simultaneously earthy and ethereal. Others made me think of cracked eggshells with tiny mist-filled landscape universes just beyond them. The artist’s longing for a more pastoral life, reminiscent of childhood time spent at his grandfather’s cottage on Round Pond (north of Boston), shapes his images. Says Lamberg-Karlovsky, “I’ve always created scapes of one sort or another—cityscapes, cosmoscapes, abstractscapes. I once produced a series of heavily textured pieces that read like oversized land-satellite photographs. I miss those. They were too heavy to take with me, that’s for sure. I had to abandon one on the roof of 211 A Street years ago because it was just too much to carry down. I’ll bet it’s still up there. In this recent work, I’m enjoying using a tiny format to trigger memories of places and images that felt vast and mysterious to me. I really like the idea of carrying and preserving them.”
If the artist had told me he had started with small weathered photographs of landscapes, applying substances to them in an attempt to blur and crackle them, I’d have believed it. But that is not the case at all. Talking about the materials he uses, Lamberg-Karlovsky says, “Like many artists I experiment with materials in an alchemical sort of way. No mystical investigations in my case, but definitely an organized search for something visually surprising that I can develop into a vocabulary. Part of my studio is pretty lab-like. I get teased for being organized, but I’ve worked hard to create plenty of room for chaos in the work where it counts.” Wanting to come up with something new, he discovered a crazing effect using materials he had been heating and dehydrating. He describes the materials as “brain-melting stuff.” They include powder pigment, oil paint, acrylic paint, ink, and watercolor. To these he might add acetone, lacquer thinner, mineral spirits, rubber cement thinner, denatured alcohol or water. He starts with these in liquid form, sometimes controlling them with a heat gun or torch to send color in different directions until he starts to see the landscape he is looking for.
I’m reluctant to post more than one or two examples of these paintings up close because of the contrast between what you see as a jpeg file on your computer screen and what you experience visiting these pieces in person. The strangeness of the black cases as the first thing you see, “reframe the frame” (as Lamberg-Karlovsky puts it) and immediately sets to work altering the viewer’s conditioned approach to viewing artwork. They have to be experienced in person. Digital images of these pieces are interesting enough to look at, but don’t show nearly the luminosity and magnetic quality of the pieces. The images, lovely as they are, are part of the larger journey of interacting with the pieces, moving from the harsh realities of an unsafe world where we need things like locked black cases for security, into the hypnotic allure of unspoiled internal and external landscapes. Being drawn deeper into the paintings became for me a shift from apprehension to wonder.
When Lamberg-Karlovsky pointed out to me what he saw in each piece, I saw it too. But I saw other things first. There is a fluidity to them that lets the mind move easily through changing perceptions of the images. His philosophy about what’s there is that whatever anyone sees in them is fine with him. His titles give hints or suggestions, but he is happy to let people’s minds go where they will. He says that some of his titles “refer to big, important art,” and are designed to make fun of himself. One example might be his ‘Lavender Missed’ piece, which refers to Jackson Pollock’s ‘Lavender Mist.’ “As a college kid I sat in front of an enormous Pollock for hours at the Met, and I was blown away.” Lamberg-Karlovsky’s ‘Lavender Missed’ is about his longing for the naïveté that went into falling in love with abstract expressionism.
The material he paints on is Purple Heart wood, harvested in the rainforests of South America. Says Lamberg-Karlovsky, “It is not an endangered species, but it will be someday. I chose it because it is a hard wood that will not warp, and because the name is so lovely and poetic, and because I like the idea of using a material that points a finger at my ideas and my process. Here I am making work about loss and rarity—while I’m using a material that embodies the problem. Not to mention the fact that those cases won’t biodegrade for thousand and thousands of years.”
What’s with the suitcases? As Lamberg-Karlovsky explains it, he had not been showing his work around. He finally put one of them in a James Bond style steel protective case, to take it to show people. Some of the people he showed it to later came to his studio for a visit, and one of them was contemporary art critic and dealer Mario Diacono who also used to show work at Ars Libri. Mario liked the work, and the concept of the suitcase, and they began talking about how to use them. With protective cases, they could be taken out on a rainy day and kept safe, and that idea appealed to Lamberg-Karlovsky because the work is unfixed. “I wanted to give it the opportunity to speak for itself,” he says, “rather than by way of computer. When the cases create that possibility—that’s when they become much more than frames. Still, I like to construct and assign meanings to them beyond their practicality. I like that they illuminate the fact that paintings are nomadic, and that their sturdiness emphasizes the fragility of the depictions and their subject, and that they have something explosive and inevitable about them. And they do seem to resemble computer monitors on the wall, which is pretty ironic seeing as I employ them in order to avoid using a computer in the first place. I have nothing against computers, I just don’t want to use them to deliver this particular body of work.”
As a digital painter, my style of making art is much more immediate than Lamberg-Karlovsky’s. But I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the slow, unfolding experience of moving into his images and becoming suspended in time. That sense of wonderment and inner quiet is one of the things I’ve always found special in taking in art, and sadly, it is something I experience less frequently these days.
Lamberg-Karlovsky is simultaneously passionate and reflective about his work and where it comes from. “I saw extremely precious things pulled from the earth and I think I learned to recognize rarity,” he says. “I think that had a lot to do with what I do now, whether I know it or not.”
This exhibit is on view through June 30. Ars Libri is at 500 Harrison Avenue in Boston’s South End.
One of his pieces will be in the upcoming “Off the Wall” exhibition at the Danforth Museum from June 12 to Aug 7th.