The former did a series of all-white paintings while still a student at Black Mountain College that John Cage credited with giving him the courage to devise his composition 4’33”, in which the pianist sits without playing for the time indicated. One of those early Rauschenbergs is in five vertical panels, and it shares with Karella’s five-panel sheet painting a kind of spiritual calm. The vertical panels in both paintings give them an aspirational quality that Rauschenberg’s white paintings in square formats don’t share in quite the same way.
To gain a fuller understanding of Karella’s art, it is necessary to consider it not only in terms of contemporary art history but also to consider the Greek influences in Karella’s background, the Turkish and Asian influences. The whites of which she is so fond are not only the whites of bright Mediterranean light, but also the whites that island homes get painted. Her series of altars has a connection to Byzantine altarpieces with their saints depicted on painted wooden panels. “I feel those influences since I was a child growing up in Greece,” Karella admits. “I made a whole series of cafés that are dark, and that comes from what I saw all my life, going through the countryside in Greece. You see the men in the cafés, and the women stay at home. There’s a tremendous atmosphere, because that’s the only possibility they have to get together. I’ve seen it all my life and felt it all my life.”
It is informative, when thinking about Karella’s accomplishments and interests, to consider the work of two other Greek-born artists, both of whom moved to the United States at an early age — Stephen Antonakos and Lucas Samaras. Antonakos, Karella, and Samaras all work in sculpture, and all three use surfaces that seem rooted in a Greek experience. Samaras’ sculptures that are composed of countless shiny surfaces — buttons, marbles, rhinestones — and Antonakos’ gold leaf paintings with neon share an affinity with Karella’s use of gold that may be said to have its origins in Byzantine art. Antonakos, who began his career working purely within a purely Modernist framework, albeit a sensual one, mainly in neon sculptures, has, in recent years, introduced an increase ingly spiritual element to his work, even designing several small chapels. Antonakos’ combination of modern neon with ancient gold finds its place in a modern art that accesses history in a sensitive way. The same could be said of many of Karella’s sculptures. The influence of New York, in particular, and the history of modern art have been profound on all three artists, yet all three feel the need to reflect their different heritages, and they do so in ways that remain unresolvable to simple historical formulae.
Of course, it is not only Marina’s own culture that has interested her but the idea, as hinted at by Tsarouchis, of bringing elements together from East and West, seeing Greece as a nodal point between two different ways of experiencing the world. A trip to India made a powerful impact on Marina. She did a series of works using found Indian images, which she modified, but more than that, the trip opened her up to a religious experience distinct from that with which she was familiar. She sees Christian mysticism as being expressed in images of purity and light, whereas what she saw of Hindu mythology often made use of chaos and darkness. “To me, it has to do with the difference between monotheistic belief, which will always stress a binary opposition of good versus evil, light versus dark, and a polytheistic one, which will tend to have all the human propensities represented by beings who are in a hierarchy but maintain a relative equality among them.”
“Eventually, in my work, just before we left for New York, I started doing “portraits” of chairs. That was in 1974, ’75. And that’s when, all of a sudden, I started to need the third dimension, and I did my first sculpture. It took me a year to do figure out how to do it. It was so complicated, a bronze. I didn’t know what material to do it in, and Iolas said, ‘My dear, you have to do it in polished bronze, because the one thing will reflect itself into another, and it will make it much more immaterial.’”
This is Marina describing her push into sculpture, which seems so natural when one thinks of her background in the theater, yet she waited several years before attempting it. Now sculpture has become a major part of her artistic focus. The first ones she did were in white cast polyester, painted with oils. Then she began working in bronze as well. From that point on, materials could vary according to her pictorial need. Some are directly related to Cycladic figures, which have inspired Giacometti, among others. Brancusi comes to mind when viewing Marina’s stacked sculptures, albeit her forms have a more directly biomorphic effect. She has worked with drapery in sculpture, transferring an abiding interest from the paintings. In the 1980s, she worked extensively in marble, manipulating expectations by creating illusions of liquid and fabric. Many of her sculptural images have to do with emptiness, for instance clothing which is empty of a body but full of the energy of one’s having been there.
Marina and Michael moved to New York in 1979 and stayed for 14 years. They went at the time when New York was experiencing a revival, coming out of the doldrums of the Modernist endgame, with its abandonment of one after another tradition — the figure, the image, the painting, then the physical work itself — and its concomitant attack on art as commodity, coupled with the attempt to take art beyond the gallery and museum settings. This was a rich period intellectually and socially, but it also indicated a point after which there is simply nothing.