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Reviews / July 11, 2013

Karen Kraven’s Magic Evident at Centre Clark

Centre Clark, Montreal January 24 to March 2, 2013
Karen Kraven “As Above, So Below” 2013 Installation view Mixed media Dimensions variable Courtesy the artist / photo Sébastien Lapointe Karen Kraven “As Above, So Below” 2013 Installation view Mixed media Dimensions variable Courtesy the artist / photo Sébastien Lapointe

“As Above, So Below” was Karen Kraven’s second solo exhibition in Montreal, and her first since finishing an MFA at Concordia last year. In this playful installation, she presented a mix of found objects and constructed situations that invoked a quasi-mystical sense of multiple dimensions. The title of the show borrowed from a motto that recurs across various occult practices like hermetic alchemy, theosophy and the tarot, referring to the ties that bind earthly bodies to other planes of existence. The magic inherent in “As Above, So Below” wasn’t strictly cosmic, however. It also involved aspects of the more familiar rabbit-in-a-hat variety of tricks: illusion, fakery and the willing suspension of disbelief.

The most striking element of the installation was certainly the huge black-and-white photomural that covered the back wall: a life-size image of a concrete basement that illusionistically expanded the space of the gallery. Consulting the provided text informed you that the photo was of Al Capone’s underground vault, which was discovered and opened in a live 1986 TV special hosted by Geraldo Rivera—anticlimactically, since they found it empty.

Other objects and images in the installation were equally enigmatic and united mainly by formal resonances. A framed, antique-looking photo of a victorious horse jockey hung next to a photographic re-enactment of the 2012 transit of Venus. The polka-dot jersey the jockey wears in the photo was replicated in the show by a child-size facsimile (white with red dots) that hung, suspended on a pole, from the ceiling. Beneath it, a red buoy floated in a Plexiglas cube half-filled with a milky fluid, itself a horizontal analogue of the neighbouring wall, from which half of a reddish bowling ball protruded. Another pole on the last wall supported a set of red horse blinders (half-globes) draped over a black hoodie. All these spheres and dots rhymed visually, while the black-and-red-and-white palette suggested a magician’s uniform, or a deck of cards.

The slipperiness of all these references led the viewer on a hunt for a coherent narrative, but in a sense, the mystery was the point—one of the definitions of “occult” is simply “hidden from view.” Kraven also compares her creative process to a “browse” and has referred to herself as an “eBay artist,” since a number of her found objects have been acquired online; the experience of skipping from one curious thing to another in this show was a bit like getting lost in a Wikipedia wander. For Kraven, the point is to proceed intuitively, parsing randomness for moments when, like magic, a connection appears.

The original version of this review appears in the Summer 2013 issue of Canadian Art, which is available on newsstands now, as well as through the App Store and Zinio.

Saelan Twerdy

Saelan Twerdy is a Montreal-based writer, editor and PhD candidate in Art History at McGill University. He is a contributing editor at Momus and the managing editor of RACAR, the official journal of the Universities Art Association of Canada.