Carrie Kaplan plays it by ear, and eye |

Carrie Kaplan plays it by ear, and eye

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy of the artist"Unleash," oil on canvas, is part of an exhibition of paintings by Carbondale artist Carrie Kaplan, showing in the lobby of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.

ASPEN – Carrie Kaplan was about to give me a tour of her current exhibition, Not a Social Network, in Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. But the lobby was occupied, so we decided to go to my office, where we could see images of her paintings on my computer. Unfortunate, but not tragic, as I had already seen the art – big, vivid, imposing pieces that shook up the proper, Victorian feel of the Wheeler.

Kaplan’s response to the twist in our agenda: “I wanted the paintings – not me – to talk to you.”

I took this to mean that Kaplan preferred to have me form my own impressions of the work, without her having to walk me through meanings and interpretation – not a unusual desire for an artist. But after talking about the exhibition, it became apparent that Kaplan had trouble speaking about her paintings. Or the process she uses to create them. Or just what the signature elements in my favorite piece in the exhibition, “Unleash” – eyes that stare out from all angles at the viewer – signify.

In fact, getting Kaplan, a short 40-year-old with big green eyes, to focus on any topic proved to be a challenge. Ask her the meaning behind a painting, and she’d turn it back on me: What did I think? Try to steer her to a timeline of her artistic career, and she’d bounce from a story of turning down $6,000 for one of her earliest paintings to how much she prefers theaters over galleries for showing her work.

Throughout the halting interview, it never occurred to me that she was affecting a pose. Kaplan is somewhat of a mystery to herself, and especially in her role as an artist. A native of Winnipeg, she attended the University of Manitoba and studied fine art, without taking a class in painting. About choosing her course in fine art, she said, “It was more a way to channel my energy, and keep me out of trouble.”

When she was wondering what materials to use in her thesis project, her brother threw her a piece of chicken skin, and said, “Here, use this.” (This episode was not as strange as it seems; their mother was cooking chicken soup at the time.) Kaplan found herself attracted to the skin.

“It was flesh. There was a creepy element to it,” she said. “I wanted to utilize things I wasn’t supposed to use, I guess.”

Among the pieces she made was “Beauty Marks,” a work of chicken skin, human hair and Plexiglas that is funny and disturbing. “There was no strategy behind it. I had no intention of shocking people,” she said. Her professor, impressed, urged her to bring the piece to the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Instead she split for Florida. At the Ft. Lauderdale Art Institute, Kaplan focused on video production, which somehow led to an intern position in radio production. In Miami she had a break-up with a long-term boyfriend, and found herself with a bunch of big canvases. She began painting, strictly for her own sake.

What resulted from this first honest effort at painting was “Rolling with Zen Zubee Blue,” a large-scale work that is strikingly mature – balanced in composition, wise in color, imbued with emotion. It was hard for me to comprehend how a novice could make such a work, and equally difficult for Kaplan to explain how it came to be.

“I was interested in absinthe, and seeing an obscene amount of music. And that’s what came out,” she said, adding that music continues to be an obsession, and the primary influence on her art. About the collection of paintings in the Wheeler exhibition, which date from 2007 to 2009 and have never been shown, she adds, “These paintings just happened. I felt like I did them in a week. When I’m painting, I’ll spill ink on something and go from there. I’m not thinking, ‘I’m going to go and paint this.’ You have to just keep searching and looking and moving things around.”

• • • •

Kaplan is just as big on synchronistic, inexplicable happenings outside of the studio. A decade ago, she agreed to accompany a friend on a drive from Florida to Santa Fe. But after hitting Aspen, they decided they didn’t need to go any further. The last thing Kaplan wanted was another cold-weather environment, but it was summertime, Aspen was beautiful, and she happened into the Wheeler.

“I remember walking in and saying, ‘I want to show here,'” she said. “I didn’t go to the galleries. I loved theaters. I loved that place.”

She announced her desire to the Wheeler personnel and showed photos of her work. The Wheeler didn’t have a visual art program at the time, but they let her exhibit her work. “They said, OK, sure,” Kaplan said. “So I couldn’t leave. Aspen has a way of pulling me back in.”

In 2005, Kaplan had an exhibition scheduled for Aspen’s L’Hostaria restaurant. Three weeks before the show, her work was destroyed and she had to replace it in a hurry. What she came up with was the Oompah series, a collection of works that show technique, but little heart or originality.

“That’s painful,” Kaplan said, looking at the pieces on my computer. “They’re awful. They’re contrived; they’re stiff. They’re like a design, a commercial.”

The pieces in Not a Social Network come from a different place. Kaplan says the frequent use of eyes in the paintings is traced back to the fact that, as a child, the only thing she was ever taught to draw were eyes. She finds they still serve a purpose.

“They’re me,” she said. “I’m just trying to observe and see. It’s a control thing.”

Another early influence – dance – is still in play for Kaplan. She danced from age 4 to 22. The sense of movement, balance – and above all, personality – that came out of dance, she believes, are found in the current works.

“This is connecting with true spirit. Essence, really,” she said. “They feel like a part of me. They are my flesh in paint.”

They are also the last works she has made. Over the last year and a half Kaplan has been rear-ended in her car and broke a toe, broke an arm snowboarding, contracted mono, and found herself living in Aspen with no place to paint.

“I was in a coma,” Kaplan said. “I’m just getting my pulse and brain back. I swear, I just came out of the womb.”

As the funk has lifted, Kaplan has started sketches for her next series. “I’m ready. I haven’t had that feeling in a long time,” she said. “If someone said, Here’s a place for you to paint, I’d move right in. And it’s already different – the lines, the palette. But wherever it wants to go, I don’t have a choice. It might not even be painting. I want to learn some new things.”

Kaplan got final confirmation that things were heading in the right direction when she went to the Wheeler again, last month, and asked about the possibility of a show – which would be her first since 2008.

“They said, ‘January’s booked … how’s February?'” she recalled. “I said, ‘Are you kidding?'”

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