This tension was resolved by a génération of young artists who were unconstrained by the ideals of their predecessors and revivified many of the traditions that had recently been jettisoned. New York was the center of this rebirth, and a mix of American and foreign artists soon became an essential part of the world in which Marina moved. James Brown, Francesco Clemente, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers and Rob Wynne are among the figures with whom she now became close, both personally and artistically, in the sense of seeing their work and being inspired by it.
“What happened in New York,” she says, “was that I found that lots of things came to me. The ideas didn’t necessarily come from New York, but it was the place to be able to realize them, because of the energy there. New York was wonderful because you just did things. It could also be rather difficult; when we first arrived, there was so much color, it was overwhelming.” Marina did not change as a result of this new life — she did not become a New York artist in that sense — but her New York life certainly freed her to see things differently. It also made her think more deeply about her European heritage.
“Then from the sculptural waterfalls,” she says, “I went into the Greek period of cafes in oil paintings. It was in New York that I felt the urge to do them.” There were three series: Café des Deux Garçons, A Place Before Dawn, and Around Time. To my mind, this body of work is Marina’s most remarkable to date.
Karella had been working toward these paintings in the late 1980s, with a series of canvases that take interiors as their subjects. Often depicting set tables and undefined spaces receding into the darkness, these paintings have a somber quality which stands in contrast to her 1970s drapery paintings. Where those were almost white, ethereal, and had human figures, the 1980s paintings are dark, largely figureless, and seem to access a different, and not innoucuous, spiritual zone. One could say these works find a parallel in contemporary paintings by the abstract painter Ross Bleckner. Both artists have a gift for painting indistinct edges, making shapes that seem to glow in space. Thematically, Bleckner chanelled feelings of loss as a result of the AIDS tragedy that became paramount in that period, taking lives of many artists and others intimately connected to the art world. The candles in Karella’s paintings are like votive candles and also flames of spirits continuing to burn in the darkness. In one painting, No Ordinary Light, 1988, a lighted doorway in a dim expanse seems to suggest a pathway to a different world.
Karella’s work can be said to change with two 1994 paintings, Daybreak and Dusk. The paintings are the same size and were conceived as a pair. They are parallel in construction, with rocky foregrounds giving way to bays on which twinkle the light of coming or dying day, bounded at top by a strip of sky and a looming landmass. They could not in reality take precisely the same view, as the rising and setting suns must be seen in opposite directions, but we know not to be so literal-minded in front of Marina’s pictures. What captures us instead is her deftness with the points of light dancing on water, and we take the parallel images as complementary moods more than literal depictions.
In 1995, Karella painted her Café les Deux Garçons series, in which her formal inventiveness expanded. Her formats became a little squarer, at once removing some of the overt “spirituality” from the work and also enabling her compositions to function better horizontally as well as vertically. At the same time, the subjects became less easily defined, and she began to combine disparate elements in a single picture. While the café motif is clearly present, with its tables and electric lighting, there is the addition of elements that are either exteriors — bodies of water or vegetation — or simply cannot be described. The result is a fantasy that exceeds the imagination, a boldness of invention that exhilarates the mind. Karella’s paintings also became more sophisticated coloristically in this series. Whereas before she limited herself to “pure” tones, or in the sculptures the powerful hues of gold and an Yves Klein blue, in these paintings she adventurously shifts from mustard yellow to a grassy green to the burnt crimsons of a summer sunset.
A Place Before Dawn, 1996, is a polyptych of fifteen panels put together to make a large rectangle. Each panel is its own picture, and the connections between them are fortuitous. The interiors depicted in these panels feature, as Karella puts it, “a bed that is not a bed. It is again exterior and interior. It can be a landscape, but at the same time it’s the chandelier of a café. A Place Before Dawn is like a resume of all the themes put it one — the cafés, the interiors, exteriors, drapery.”
The painting cycle Around Time, 1998, is based on a photograph by Robert Doisneau of an abandoned carousel. In Marina’s treatment, foreground and background meld together, and the carousel seems empty because it is apart from normal time. You could call it a dream, but it seems even more powerful than that, a shocking, primal experience, a kind of hallucination, or vision, effected by the artist through her masterful paint handling. Whereas in the white sheet paintings, she was able to create a compelling object, now the actual painting is much more subtle, the spaces, imaginary though they may be, more expertly evinced. The space is interesting and feels real; it is carefully worked out. She does not always do drawings to work out those dimensions. She does start from photographs, as usual, but then she adds to and subtracts from the photograph. As she puts it, “The painting is a made-up situation. It’s based on a photograph, but then other elements are put in — the landscaping to it. When I start the painting, I have drawings, the idea, the maquette, the colors, but doing the painting I transform it. I work very quickly, but I do four to five paintings at the same time, and they take me a month.”
From the landscapes in the paintings has arisen a recent project of nature drawings and paintings. “These flowers came out of the white flowers as a contradiction to the Indian images,” says Karella. “I went into a garden phase. These are big close-ups of flowers and gardens, but with millions of things happening in them, stories. They are oriental gardens and Greek gardens. They’re about people being there and not being there. These are all empty.” They are watercolors that have an unusual richness because of the wax Karella applies to her painted surfaces. Watercolor has been the focus, too, of Karella’s other recent experiment, an extensive series of portraits. These she does in sections; in other words, a person’s head, torso, and legs might each appear on separate sheets of paper, which are then installed stepwise to create a complete figure. Working in this way, Karella accentuates the materiality of her medium, giving it a sculptural presence. Watercolor encourages the artist to get done what she wants to get done right away. To work under this constraint was a departure for Karella and part of a conscious decision she made to take a break from oil painting.