SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
In her monochromatic studio, on a greyscale day, Alexandra Karakashian pours a cone of salt into the upturned lid of a jar. The lid holds a layer of liquid that resembles treacle or tar. She tells me that it is sump, used motor oil, which she sources from a network of generous, inner-city mechanics.
As we watch, the oil oozes up into the salt – a dark, ascending horizon.
The line is perfectly regular until eventually the island is subsumed; colonised by capillary action. It is now an ominous puddle. This impromptu experiment illustrates the interaction between oil and salt, Karakashian’s media of choice.
From her third-floor studio, I see palm trees, a Greek Orthodox spire and a golden-domed Mosque. Muslim afternoon prayers are buffeted by a north-wester and the sky stains a deeper grey. Karakashian’s work seems prophetic of my drive home. Her paintings, which springboard from landscape painting and formal abstraction, have the quality of a tempest brewing.
Three canvases, Deplore I, II & III, are leaned against a wall to dry. They contain the visual formula that make Karakashian’s work so recognisable, blurring and bleeding areas of milk white and molasses black and the anxiety-inducing ambiguity of a rorschach test. They could be the greasy residue of a mechanical endeavour, the dry landscapes of the interior, a cataclysmic weather anomaly, or the remnants of a bonfire on a wall.
Up close there is a glitchiness and an accidental quality to the marks. In Ground X, a spidery bank of black crackles in the foreground while Gerard Richter sandstorms rage in the distance.
Soon after visiting her studio, I encounter these same works at ‘Ground’, Karakashian’s first solo show at SMAC, where the tension between her oppugnant materials and colours is played out across sixteen paintings and a large installation work (the hulking big brother of her minute lid experiment). The title quips with the multiple meanings of the word ‘ground’: grounds for dismissal, grounded in reason, ground to a pulp, the term for a prepared painting surface and the ground beneath our feet.
The latter evinces Karakashian’s ecological and social concern on the issue of land. A descendent of immigrant, asylum-seekers, she sympathetically broaches contentions over ownership and redistribution of land. Her use of salt and oil mimics destruction in the forms of the legendary (although historically sketchy) salting of Carthage in the third Punic War and far-too-frequent oil spills, the most recent of which, happened in May this year. The extraction of oil by drilling or fracking –a process that sometimes uses salt in the drilling mud– is another example of the woefully destructive potential these media symbolize.
And yet, famine is balanced by feast.
When I mentioned Karakashian’s choice of media to a friend I was wryly teased about my taste for salty, oily things, but I see that as part of what makes her use of oil and salt seductive. They are loaded with context. They are as miraculously useful resources, repugnant pollutants and also cultural artefacts.
Salax, meaning ‘in a salted state’, was what the Romans termed a man in love. It is the origin of the word ‘salacious’. In the new testament, salt is analogous to light. It is a seasoning, a preservative, a disinfectant, a component of ceremonial offerings, and an historical unit of exchange (the root of the word salary).
For her ‘sins’, Lot’s wife was transformed into a pillar of salt and it is of this barbaric biblical tale that I think when looking at Karakashian’s installation. A bed of salt (that I think ought to have been better contained) lies receptive in the centre of the room. Above it, oil seeps through a swathe of canvas and drops down, enacting its oleaginous drip-torture and creating a foul-looking stain. Gravity soils the perfect white, forcibly converting it from medium into doom-saying message.
The exhibition has a well-metered, rhythmic quality. Because her palette is limited, it appears coherent and marginal difference within that range is compelling. Instead of using store-bought-black she concocts her own, enabling variations in tone and vibrancy.
Karakashian is part mourner and part prospector. She adores the harshly inorganic and the magnitude of brutal formalism while remaining concerned about the vulnerability of people and the environment.