In addition to her fascination with materials, already evident in her late 1960s work, and her desire to treat each work as a separate entity, there is often an over-arching sense of the mysterious, an air with which Karella imbues her works that connects it to various histories — ancient and contemporary — and also leaves the work inexplicable, aloof.
From the early figures on, Karella has frequently used photography as part of her creative process. She does not treat the camera as a device to see with — her images do not have a photographically produced feeling to them. Rather, she uses the camera to get ideas for composition and perhaps gesture. With those suggestions in hand, she sets the camera aside and constructs the image with the manual means at her disposal. Karella is particularly sensitive to the qualities of media, and she will make definite decisions as to which medium she wishes to work in at a given time. Her description of an early photo session for a painting indicates the persistence of a sense of theater that lies behind her two- and three-dimensional work:
“I’ve been taking photographs all along, because I use them for my work, for the painting. I start with an idea, then I like to photograph the idea. I made one huge painting of a march on the beach. So I went down to the beach in Greece with three or four friends of mine helping me, and assistants, with bicycles, huge beds, draperies, wheelbarrows, chairs, armchairs, and made a whole huge procession of these on the beach! And I took photos of them, which I used to make drawings, and from these drawings I made a huge white painting. From the 1970s on, that’s been my way of working. The new ways of materials give me fresh starts. I always make my mise-en-scène by the sea.”
In the mid-1970s, Karella moved into her first signature style — large oil paintings of figures in situations dominated by what appear to be white sheets. The figures may be standing or lying, completely visible or partially shrouded, awake or in some state of semi- or unconsciousness. The settings are not realistic; the sheets can take on characteristics of rocky landscape or water. There is a shifting back and forth in the consciousness of the viewer when confronting these works; they do not allow the mind to settle into one interpretation, but encourage it to travel outward to ever different possibilities. Mainly, though, these paintings haunt the viewer because of their evanescence, achieved through the technique Karella devised to make the figures seem on the verge of disappearing into a completely white environment.
Karella’s use of shrouding leads to different interpretations — it can be the shrouding of a dead person, it can have an angelic air, depicting the spirit, and some of them are quite erotic, particularly where the face is covered and part of the body is revealed. Different ideas come and go, and the work is not dogmatic. Partially, too, Karella’s sheets hark back to the “winding sheet” in Aischylos’ Oresteia trilogy. The queen Klytaimestra and her lover Aigisthos catch the returned king in a sheet, while he is taking a bath, before murdering him.iN And suddenly, it goes back to being the modern bed sheet. It’s as if the fabric becomes a character in Karella’s paintings.
The people in the white paintings are contemporary in their clothing and hairstyles. In the painting The Myth/Mythical White/ Troubled Waters, 1976, the setting can be a landscape and also a bed with sheets; rectilinear lines can feel like windows or doorways. “It’s between a bed and a landscape,” says Karella. “I use the sheet as a pictorial means, but it also has a symbolic value. We’re born in sheets, we make love in sheets, we die in sheets. It’s a little bit like the mother, and then there are these young men.”
In 1977, Karella had her first show in New York, at the gallery Brooks Jackson/Iolas. Barbara Zucker wrote about the show in ARTnews, “In her first one-woman show in the United States, Karella exhibited six canvases. Her figurative images are surreal and rendered with photographic clarity. Her presences are like static, contemporary totems. The paintings themselves are almost invisible; that is, they have a silvery white, glossy surface which makes the subject hard to see. … The two largest paintings are made of five sections, the central being the biggest. … a potpourri of mixed metaphors here; one isn’t sure if the scene is religious, if the ‘queen’ is a devouring Jungian figure, or if she is being ignored in the men’s preference for each other. [In another painting] The ‘ice queen’ lies en déshabillée on the bed (whose wrinkled sheets run like water), either sated or wounded. The drapery with which the artist covers her figures or objects is obviously classical in style, and relates to Greek drama.”iv
Critically, and interestingly, Karella did not make completely white paintings; she is more interested in the intersection between being and non-being, and for that she needs the human or natural form, or some sign of them. Also, while the 1970s could be called “the white decade,” Karella must have wanted to distance herself from such predecessors in white painting as Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Ryman.