Catalog Essays

Karen Marston, Demeter's Wrath Catalog, 2016

Karen Marston, Demeter’s Wrath Catalog, 2016

By Owen Houhoulis
From the catalog published in conjunction with
Demeter’s Wrath, a solo exhibition
at the Owen James Gallery
June 2016, New York City


Karen Marston is a painter focused on the fundamental contradiction of natural phenomena, the pairing of powerful terror with majestic beauty. Her large-scale oil paintings portray this strength at its extremes: tornadoes, forest fires, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions. While many of these events have occurred naturally throughout the history of the Earth, they have also been exacerbated by the influence humans have on the environment.

The exhibition’s title Demeter’s Wrath comes from the Ancient Greek Tale of Erysichthon. In the myth, King Erysichthon seeks to quickly expand his palace. He enters a wooded grove sacred to the goddess Demeter, the Earth-Mother figure who also controls harvests and grains, and therefore the earth cycle of life and death. In his selfish haste, Erysichthon callously cuts down Demeter’s favorite tree. Irate, the goddess punishes him with a curse that brings him eternal starvation. The king is overwhelmed by his own hunger, and though he constantly eats larger and larger amounts of food, his body continues to wither and weaken. Finally, when no food is left in his kingdom, he turns to eating his own body. The king’s greed and disregard for nature push him to consume even himself.

This ancient story holds direct parallels to many of the modern ills that Karen Marston addresses in her work. Man’s disregard of the warnings of climate scientists is hastening the damage we do, not only to the environment, but also to ourselves in consequence. Many news stories on climate change take on a personal narrative, such as animal extinction, property damage and famine. Marston, however, focuses on the way these effects are funneled through nature itself. The scale of nature in her work is so large and powerful that humans are not seen directly in it. At times we might see the artifacts of human existence (such as an oil rig, or telephone pole) but the people have already run away from, or been consumer by, the forces she depicts.

In Eruption (2015) we see a volcano’s dark and dense pyroclastic flow choking the atmosphere itself. However, the blurry sense of dread it arouses in us is matched by the pure beauty of the smoke’s indiscriminate power. Volcanic eruptions destroy, but they also create some of the most fertile soils. A central component of Marston’s work is the idea that these elements gain much of their power and ferocity from being in motion. In Volcano Lightning (2015) we see this in full effect, as the motions of subterranean forces rise up and engage the havoc they create in the sky.

By pairing Ring of Fire (2016) with Ablaze (2016), a sense of time’s duration is created as a forest fire sells to full inferno. Once again, we are reminded that the destructive power of fire is an awesome visage, but also a part of the Earth’s regenerative process.

At other times, however, Nature’s force seems to bring us only destruction. Tornado #9 (2015) threatens the viewer with an approaching cyclone that devours all in its path. Crashing Waves (2015) hurls the full weight of the ocean down on the coastal towns and cities we have, perhaps foolishly, erected on our shores.

In assessing the damage of these events, we tend to refer to them as Acts of God. While the beauty of these forces is truly something to behold, Marston subtly hints that they can also be Acts of Man. The cycles of Nature are old and profound. Karen Marston depicts them with the awe they deserve.

– By Owen Houhoulis

Owen Houhoulis is a contemporary art gallery professional with extensive experience, he opened the Owen James Gallery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2014. The gallery presents an international array of both emerging and mid-career artists, with special focus on artists from South East Asia and New York City.




Karen Marston, Respirations Catalog

Karen Marston, Respirations Catalog, 2005

By Kóan Jeff Baysa, MD
From the catalog published in conjunction with
Respirations, a solo exhibition at Taller Boricua
March 2005, New York City


“My works”, the artist remarks “are about the poetics of seeing”.  I was impressed with these remarkable paintings, their vibrant imagery, skillful brushwork, and expansive references. When she states that “the structures of nature are the structures of the body, are the structures of emotion” she echoes the ancient physician Galen’s concept that the various emotions are seated in specific organs. As a physician specializing in hypersensitivity disorders and as a freelance art curator and writer, I strive to keep the tradition of the artist-scientist vital with concurrent clinical and curatorial practices. “Curing” and “curating” are both derived from the same Latin root curare, “to care for”.Marston’s paintings, distilled affirmations of life translated into powerful images, have at their core primal fears of suffocation, drowning and the struggle for breath using aqueous, arboreal and anatomical motifs. She demonstrates these symbologies dramatically in Breathing Underwater (2003) in which a bronchial tree appears to have just succumbed beneath the water’s surface, creating a whirlpool by its submersion. In utero, the human fetus is tethered by an umbilical cord in its amniotic sea, dependent on a branch-patterned veined placenta for oxygen and nutrition. Its lungs are fluid-filled until its first inhalation initiates the respiratory cycle that connects it with the outside world. If a small amount of fluid remains in the lungs after birth, “wet lung”, a transient condition with tachypnea (rapid breathing) occurs. In contrast, a patient with progressive congestive heart failure slowly drowns as the lungs fill with fluid from pulmonary edema. Therein lies the poignancy of the vitality of breathing poetically presented in Red Lungs and Poppy (2003) in which the intensity of the red poppy and its stem fade into the trachea and lungs against an atmospheric background. Within Marston’s visual vocabulary, links between myth and medicine are exemplified in the phenomenon “Ondine’s curse”, named after the beautiful water sprite who sacrificed her immortality for a knight’s love. He pledged his breath to her in marriage, but when she discovered him to be unfaithful, she took him at his word and condemned him to remain awake in order to breathe. Falling asleep would result in death. In clinical medicine, its analog is sleep apnea.Years ago, the artist was profoundly affected by witnessing a deluge that caused the Delaware river to overflow its banks, thereby creating a landscape of marooned trees with skyward limbs and exposed roots. In the Kaballah, the Tree of Life is a map of personal energies and a means of bringing balance into life. Yggdrasill, the mighty tree In Norse mythology, represents the World Tree of life, knowledge, time and space. Uprooted trees, therefore, are powerful emblems of rupture and displacement. In dream analysis, images of water suggest conscious thought while whirlpools imply wakes of past disturbances. Links are found with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and his complex affections for Ophelia. Feeling ultimately rejected, Ophelia allows herself to be drowned in a whirlpool vortex. The artist gathers archetypes of water, trees and breathing in the striking Root System (2002) where bare branches above water bathed in shadowy light are mirrored below by a pair of illuminated, submerged lungs.Marston masterfully grounds the essential physicality of water, trees and human anatomy in her self-reflective paintings, balancing purposeful ambiguities and emotional gravities while underscoring her belief in the dualistic nature of life and its contradictions. With metaphors of interface and transition, finitude and survival, concealment and revelation, these paintings come from a point of pain and betrayal to arrive at regeneration and independence.– Kóan Jeff Baysa, MD

Kóan Jeff Baysa is a curator, writer, art collector, physician, and Curatorial Fellow alumnus of the Whitney Independent Study Program. A contributing writer for New York Arts Magazine and the online publication Flavorpill, he sits on the boards of The Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School University and the Art Omi International Artists Colony. His clinical practice in TriBeCa largely serves medically uninsured artists and their families; his curatorial practice emphasizes personal, social and environmental awareness by illuminating the linkages between the sciences and the humanities. Dr. Baysa is based in New York and Los Angeles.