Jan Karlton: A Life in Art
Man & Dog / two figure (OIL PAINTING- 1986 )
The Branner-Spangenberg Gallery's current exhibit, "Jan Karlton: A Life In Art" (March 17-April 21, 2017; opening reception 6-9 P.M., March 31), is a retrospective of the work of Jan Karlton (1939-1997), a Bay Area artist whose life was tragically cut short by a motor vehicle collision while she was on vacation in northern Italy in 1997.
Ms. Karlton was primarily a figurative artist, and the exhibit consists of twenty-five pieces ranging from four very large canvases to smaller works on paper, down to two intriguing diorama-like pieces consisting of relatively monochromatic images on paper installed inside transparent plastic cases. She worked in oil, gouache, charcoal and graphite, and most of the work displayed consists of medium-sized to small paintings and drawings, monotypes and collotypes. There are half a dozen enticingly-composed figurative graphite drawings mounted on wooden panels; however, most of her work seeks "power and impact" versus "effortless elegance" (her characterization from a 1995 General Statement contained in jankarlton.com, a website created and maintained by her son, David Karlton; all quotes in this review are taken from that site unless otherwise indicated).
Recurring themes in the artist's work include allusions -- sometimes overtly caustic -- to politics and the tragedies of history, a multitude of dogs, human figures done in simplified form, and, in her latter period, colorful and semi-abstract constructions suffused with playfulness and a sense of amused sexuality: by way of exemplifying the latter, "Big Blue Hat", undeniably a large blue penis with "scrawled messages of sexual awakenings and render-related totems of childhood" successfully intended by the artist to be at once joyous and goofy. Throughout, her style is expressionistic, somewhat reminiscent of the Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and other German artists of the early twentieth century; one senses a spiritual kinship that arises from witnessing the manifold disasters that have emerged since the First World War.
Big Blue Hat (OIL PAINTING- 1995)
Karlton's use of dogs, most often portrayed in a spare, linear fashion as portrait heads, emerged in her telling as a sort of metaphor for humans. The paintings range from individual depictions to groupings of a dozen or more; an established, recurrent format invites the viewer to spot subtle differences that could be likened to variations in crowd behavior. Perhaps -- and betraying their humanness -- the dogs could be preparing to take sides in the gloomily dystopian Milgram and Zimbardo experiments of mid-century of which the artist was very likely aware.
Notwithstanding, and in spite of its candor, there is nothing ultimately pessimistic about Karlton's work. She understood that art is "not created by the determined application of reason" (from 1995 General Statement), and in her sometimes trenchant criticisms of modern art and its pundits she expressed a strong distaste for branding; for the artist as the living persona of his work. In this criticism she echoes the philosopher Herbert Marcuse's notion of the one-dimensional man, the modern human as consumer who identifies completely with the products s/he seeks to acquire. Karlton's work and its philosophical underpinnings suggest a certain muted prescience about the latest iterations of contemporary existence, still in their unpredictable infancy at the time of her death.
House in The Valley (OIL PAINTING- 1995)
Viewed as a whole, Karlton's objectives enable her work to take on a life of its own, unencumbered by fidelity to style or thematic restraint. In her words, "[a]rt is the thought and effort to communicate with others on the immense question of life itself that advances our knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe. That is what art is all about." (April 17, 1983) Eschewing the false modesty of silence, her work is ably committed to art's highest and truest purpose.