Houhoulis, Owen, Karen Marston, Demeter's Wrath, 2016

Baysa MD, Kóan Jeff, Karen Marston, Respirations, 2005

By Kóan Jeff Baysa, MD

From the catalogue 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.

Baysa MD, Kóan Jeff, Karen Marston, Respirations, 2005