Guardians in Painting
Zeitgeist through February 24
WORDS Sara Lee Burd
Nestled within a secret cluster of studios in East Nashville, Karen Seapker created her latest series of paintings on exhibit now at Zeitgeist Gallery. Sentinels is the result of the artist’s dedicated search for solutions to visual and conceptual issues she has wanted to resolve in her art. This series began with seeds of ideas she had while living in Brooklyn after graduate school at Hunter College. They have sporadically grown since she moved to Nashville nearly five years ago. Applying tremendous effort intellectually and technically, she arrived at a new visual language to make Sentinels. The content of the work comes from a more urgent place within the artist. Seapker’s art can be viewed in numerous ways, providing ample space for her biography, technique, feminism, politics, and theory to arise.
Referencing Georges Didi-Huberman’s Confronting Images as the basis for considering art engagement and art making, Seapker explains the idea of approaching painting with a sense of “not knowledge.” She begins, “It’s this space of mystery, wonder, and what-if. I think I utilize that when creating a painting. Like, what is that? Oh, this could be this. It allows the work to just become.” She continues talking about reception: “I would love for viewers to be comfortable to allow their body and eyes to slowly derive meaning. People want to know why to like it, and I think that’s a shame.”
Sentinels are those who keep lookout. A position often associated with knights and soldiers in warfare, Seapker’s guardians are all goddesses. She summons Artemis, Renenutet, and Aset to serve contemporary society. She explains, “I gave myself permission to make goddess figures, which part of me felt was cliché and second-wave feminism. I needed this though. It came from a personal need. I want my painting to come from that. It’s not just about formal relationships; I want there to be an essential need to make.”
Three events in particular inspired the artist to seek protection. Seapker was working on the series through the tumultuous Trump election and found herself making images that spoke to her deep desire to protect her two daughters from a world where sexism is tolerated. She clarifies, “I was so nervous about how changes with the current administration could affect their lives.” Physical danger arose when she and her husband witnessed a drive-by shooting the same week they brought their newborn daughter home from the hospital. It shook their family tremendously, and fear persists as Seapker notes that incidents of gun violence are unfortunately not uncommon these days. A third disturbance that urged her toward seeking shelter was grief associated with the ten-year anniversary of the death of a close family member. “Time inserted itself as a subject. I became aware of time and space in a way that shocks the system that anyone would know who has gone through a significant loss,” she explains.
In a variety of ways, time and space play a significant role in Seapker’s art. The gradients of color used throughout her work indicate shifts within the temporal and spatial order. Often communicating with broad brushstrokes, she makes pathways across the canvas that become a history of her physical and emotional movement. Current pop culture elements such as the “The Future Is Female” t-shirt in Bearing or the Nike sneaker in Sybil tie the paintings to right now. The latter proves a fun reference to the Greek goddess of victory, and it also seems a grounding foot onto the real world.
Foregoing a standard press release for this exhibition, Seapker sent a poem written by her husband, Bill Eberle. With phrases like, “Sitting in a chair. A head on your arm. A head that isn’t yours./A piece of you/ outside of yourself./” and “From nothing/again/someone”, he creates impressions of the maternal context from which the work grew. About her own place in life she recalls, “Things changed after I had had kids and I understood the interdependent family that we are a part of and that different things move in different directions.”
The artist suggests that motherhood may have brought about the most immediate influence for the current aesthetics and content of the work. She recalls, “I knew I needed to disrupt my figures, and I was watching my body go through these transformations. I was housing another human inside of me! Simultaneously that makes me feel really strong, and there are other times I have to disappear to pat a back in the middle of the night and become simply a rocking mechanism for my child. Thinking about my shifting physicality made these figures more interesting to me.”
In Cradle, a highly abstracted enthroned goddess holds a child. Lines coming from the figure’s arms imply movement and suggest the act of soothing. Familiar images throughout history come to mind when seeing her representations of mother and child: Michelangelo’s tragic Pieta, the regal queen and heir, poignant photographs of real-life maternal moments, among others. In this work she exploits the paradox of representation and presentation to energetic ends. She communicates that paint is just paint while honoring the integrity of the content. The rock-like seat has a functional, believable supporting role for the figure, and yet it also falls away into loose brushstrokes on the canvas. The exaggerated arms and hands speak to the dynamic act of calming in general. She elaborates on cradling, “You hold a baby, but that’s also a gesture that you yourself have. You are comforting yourself, too. There’s a union in those gestures.”
With the paintings in Sentinels, on their own or considered as a group, the artist accomplishes physical, emotional, and intellectual connections. The goddesses that fill the gallery serve as reminders of the protection against danger humans have sought throughout history. The bold color combinations, dynamic angular and curved lines, larger-than-life figures, and fragmented space capture attention immediately. Drawing the viewer in with unique aesthetic appeal, her compositions also stand up to analytical interpretation. With her sophisticated approach to artmaking both technically and conceptually in Sentinels, Seapker secures her place of prominence among Nashville’s artists.
Karen Seapker’s Sentinels will be on exhibition at Zeitgeist through February 24. For more information, visit www.zeitgeist-art.com.