Looking at Darina Karpov ’s paintings and drawings can be an almost overwhelming experience. They teem with figures seemingly on the verge of animation, bound together by the overlaying traces of their own urge for movement. One may find, in the minutia of this dense and often disorienting fabric, elements of the grotesque, machinery, bits of textiles. And yet to perceive the whole is to encounter something of an unfathomable multiplicity. Darina, born in Russia and now based in New York, charts an always-deviating movement of thought and image that is sudden, layered, and constant. In this interview, made possible by the Esopus Foundation, she graciously and carefully answered my questions about her most recent show at Pierogi, her process, and the temporal and spatial complexities at work in her art.
Andrew Frank The quality of movement is what, I think, first drew me to your work. In your drawings and paintings, figures, and forms transform across space; depending on how one looks at a piece, they can interpret an almost linear progression or evolution across the paper or canvas (though the term linear is certainly reductive here). This transformation, this “hybridity,” is at once a source of constant change and yet of apparent stillness; abstractions and growths are continually emerging and yet always there, revealed as though slipped under a microscope and captured. How do you see time—as well as movement and space—functioning in your work?
DK It’s very appropriate to see my work through the temporal lens and to think of it in terms of duration, as it unfolds over time whether through the build up of layers or through movement across the pictorial plane. I’ve always been influenced by time-based media—film, music, or theater—all the things that evolve and expand spatially and in temporal dimensions. I think kinesthetically, or maybe it’s the thought itself that’s actually kinesthetic and I am just trying to plot it or record its movement. The experience of dislocation and perpetual movement is fundamental in my work. I like to imagine how space is being affected by time, how new hybrid structures result from layers of paint bleeding through numerous translucent applications, or through other improvisational methods. It can produce a feeling of transience and transform the passage of time into space. The figure-ground relationships become really dynamic, nonhierarchical, and fluid. All sorts of liberating possibilities can open up like transcending the limitations of planar space and gravity, for example, or forming interfaces between different surfaces so one environment may easily slip or fold into another and structures may cluster or scatter. It helps me to think of the space as a kind of positive substance, active, vibrating, and malleable.
I don’t know, but it must have a lot to do with my personal life, personal history, with the fact that I am myself dislocated, born and raised in Russia, but living in the States half of my life already. Since I was five years old, I had this fantasy about leaving, moving away, being somewhere else, someplace new. And I think it’s about something more fundamental than wanting to leave Saint Petersburg or the Soviet Union for political or economic reasons. I think I was really romanticizing this errant, nomadic existence. I come from a family where there were several generations of geologists and geophysicists, going all the way back to 19th century. Seventeen scientists in all! And all these stories of expeditions and adventures filled with all sorts of wonders and threats circulated in the family. My grandmother, with whom I am still very close, is quite a storyteller and had some really fascinating accounts of her journeys in Central Asia and East Siberia (I am sure she also embellished them generously!). I actually spent some time traveling in those parts of the world myself. I am a bit obsessed with relocation and it can get really tiresome, but I can’t break that pattern! Even just moving apartments—I moved four times last year, and that’s just in New York City.
AF Along those lines, could you speak about process a little? I’m curious as to how these pieces are envisioned, and how you move through them.
DK I often work sequentially, it’s like making up a story in which each action evolves from the outcome of the previous one. I work on many pieces at the same time. Each work serves a temporal container for sorting out objects and figurations that have either personal significance or simply arise through improvisation. It’s not very important what these objects are, whether they happen to be branches, stones, or buildings, each is an integral part of my private language, a sort of weave on which a range of interpretations can be constructed. The original process involves moving across the two-dimensional plane in one or many directions, expanding in a viral formation. This is how I start—things get organized and link themselves with one another contiguously, as multiple chain reactions. You know, that Peter Fischli and David Weiss film The Way Things Go had a great influence on me in school and got me thinking about organizing things into chains and sequences.
So this process is errant, streaming, and is rooted in constant digression which actually becomes a structuring agent for the work. It’s an organic, out of control process, kind of like growing a garden—setting something in motion and watching it evolve beyond what I could imagine. Beginning with some sort of rules or interactions and letting it propagate. The surface becomes a record of the activity that could go on as if it’s a complex system that’s running itself. There is a sense as if some event is about to happen, about to crystallize, a realtime tracer of movements and thoughts. Deviation itself becomes an operating concept. I always start by trying to produce a clear form, but throughout the time with the work, through the process of layering, the form shifts into formlessness and ambiguity, becomes partially obliterated, gets scattered. Intermingled and confused images come to surface from my memory, things I imagined or have seen. The work unfolds through fragmentation and variation, but there is a desire to connect and bind everything, hence the ropes and strings and chains everywhere, having everything linked to everything else.
AF Do you consider your pieces distinct, or does a show like Wayward represent a series of meditations on similar themes?
DKI think of these pieces as truncated sequences of some larger “wholes,” sort of “severed events” that at the same time function as discrete entities, which I realize is a contradictory thing in itself…This show is somewhat transitional for me for a number of reasons, some of which relate to my personal life, and also because I only recently started working in oil and on such an intimate scale. So there are works on both panel and canvas, and I am showing works on paper as well, which represent two distinct processes—one where I initially block areas in order to extrude figure from the ground, and the other evolving more organically, the sort of weaves I was talking about earlier. If there is any “theme” to it, it might as well be about straying or meandering off the designated course.
AF Your subject matter seems to come largely from the natural world—shapes like vines, nerves, bodies, organs, and trees appear frequently—and seem to search for or express commonalities across forms, which makes me think of the real as it acts upon the body. Is there an attempt to articulate something akin to this, a world of experience beyond or before language, or an instability of self?
DK Yes, I think that the shakiness of the self may as well result from the realization that there is a world of experience outside of the “symbolic,” before language and categorization, etcetera. Perhaps it’s not always a very reassuring or comforting thought. So I do want to suggest that there might be something dark lurking behind a seemingly picturesque scene, and I am definitely interested in the unsettling nature of the space between the self and the object, the inside and outside, or may be even between fiction and reality. I am interested in the interplay between these realms and how they coexist. But on a more fundamental level it’s about my obsession with material textures of objects—textures that act as the markers of time, things that are on the verge of rotting, falling apart, disintegrating. This is what gives me a basic layer of content. On that level, forms themselves can interact with one another, transform, produce other forms, break up. This dimension serves as the ground for my storytelling and provides material for the image. I work with imagery from a natural world, which has been heavily filtered through culture and media, so it’s hard to see it as anything pure. I would say it’s really more about expressing human nature in the end.
AF The use of oils on canvas in Wayward represents something of a departure for you—what led you to explore this medium?
DK For a long time I thought I had an oil phobia, I just had no patience for it. I’d try it for a month every other year for the past six years, and I would drop it every time, completely frustrated. But about a year and a half ago, I came to a kind of halt with the gouache and acrylic paintings on panels I was making at that time, so I decided to make a switch. I realized that acrylic just felt ultimately too sterile, the aesthetic qualities of it were no longer satisfying in terms of tactility or materiality. Also, I wanted it to be more physical, a visceral kind of experience, like smearing—I use my fingers sometimes which I realize is not very healthy. I couldn’t really sand, scrape, and rework the acrylic painting as extensively as I do oils. I sometimes want to expose the layers underneath. I first build up an overlapping content, the process, which in a way mimics a time-lapse image because it unfolds on top of itself. Then I excavate what’s buried underneath, fragments of colors and shapes and use them as a point of departure to construct a new composition, to synthesize a new image. I like when the work exposes some glimpses of its own architecture, the process of its own making, and I want to draw attention to that. And now, I also just want to take time with the painting to make slower more deliberate work I suppose, works that have a broader range of colors, textures, and surfaces. Oil painting goes so far back, it has such rich ancestry and I want to tap into that, to connect with that history. I’ve been looking at Delacroix and Fragonard, most recently.
AF There are notable stylistic differences in this new work as well—I’m thinking of the visibility of brushstrokes and the large swathes of color in pieces like Inadequate Refuge and (Untitled) Green Streak. Are your thoughts about composition changing?
DK I usually focus on the minute and the delicate aspects, making small gestures, skimming over surfaces. I’ve always been drawn to micro textures and lots of surfaces and details that can pull me in to look at something more and more and find little details that are attractive and sensual. But on the other hand, I am interested in globby washes, awkward spills and broad gestural strokes that are quite raw, which appeal to me because they convey another kind of rawness that’s psychological. And so it’s more about keeping the right balance. I don’t think I want to completely move away from the micro details, but I am becoming more comfortable with bolder or unfinished areas, kind of letting go of certain insecurities.
AF Your work seems to me to represent a very direct form of expression, as though we are seeing something that has not been filtered extensively as it is transferred on to the paper or canvas. Does this work correspond to, or express, a personal way of seeing? Or, more simply, why do you make work like this, and what does it allow you to see or experience?
DK My process is quite introspective, so basically it brings me back in touch with myself, it helps me process the world around me, to regurgitate the flow of information. But I guess working on a painting is like entering a forbidden territory in which the impossible occurs. There is a possibility of coming into contact with otherness depicting this world that is always falling apart and coming together. I also crave the physicality of it. I am really preoccupied with the sense of touch and the point at which imagery materializes through the merging of the medium and the surface.
And in terms of the storytelling, I like it to be open ended. I want to capture something which succeeded in escaping me. I get hold of fragments, but never capture the whole thing, so I have to keep moving. I want my work to have some sort of history, to embrace a multiplicity of worlds, past and present, and maybe the future as well. It amazes me to see how some contemporary objects are constructed from remnants of the past and how some objects are so old that they look futuristic. But I don’t want to refer to any one thing, I am more interested in making images that form new identities out of this collision of elements and references.