In looking at Karen Jilly’s paintings, prints, and drawings of the past 25 years, I am reminded of the way that paintings by the 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner so perfectly capture the spirit of the mysterious and powerful forces of a turbulent sea. In Jilly’s art, a similar energy is made visible, only her subject is the turn-of-the-millennium urban landscape, the product of technological advances of the industrial revolution.
During the last decade of the 20th century, Jilly focused her attention on the changing landscape of Los Angeles, with bodies of work devoted to areas of the Pacific Coast Highway that had become overpopulated with forests of telephone poles and wires, and underpasses of intersecting freeways, where an elaborate latticework of pillars and scaffolding intermingle with lumber piles and overturned hazard cones. In Jilly’s hands, these typically overlooked environments are transformed into spaces of mysterious intrigue or sublime beauty. In paintings, such as Pacific Coast Highway V (1991), Jilly portrays a strip of land that borders the Pacific Ocean as the antithesis of stereotypical depictions of the coastline as tranquil and idyllic. Instead, she shows us a highly charged view of growth and change, where the natural landscape has been overtaken by the mechanics of the telephone system and the air and sky are breathing smog. Rather than respond negatively to the situation, as many would be prone to do, Jilly expresses a sense of awe and wonder over environmental change in action, applying thick, turbulent brushstrokes and contrasting the dark sooty blacks of poles and wires with the rich luminosity of a smoggy atmospheric haze.
From a philosophical standpoint, Jilly’s art is one that inspires us to reflect upon the cycles of past, present, and future, and the larger questions surrounding the very nature of being. In her numerous renderings of the freeway underpasses, she transforms rarely visited spaces into arenas for navigation that become metaphors for life’s journey. In City of Angels VI (1991), architectural details have been obscured in the favor of dark swirling brushwork, turning the area into a haunting cave, with overturned cones signaling that we might approach with caution. Nevertheless, a light in the distance harkens us to enter. Metaphorically, the painting is like life itself. Although we may not know what lies ahead, we must go for the gold and get on board. Similar ideas are at work in Infinite January I (1998), where Jilly has used vigorous drawing to bring such vitality to a dead sunflower, a symbol for humanity, such that the imagery raises provocative questions about life after death. In Wash, Trip, Crash, Soar (2005), the artist’s selective vantage point transforms an industrial structure into a cathedral-like edifice, whose central focus is the light visible through its center. In a manner that recalls the format of another 19th century painter, Caspar David Friedrich, the space of the painting is directional. As our eyes move from the material structures of the foreground to the ephemeral atmosphere in the distance, we are reminded that life is indeed transitory, it is but a beautiful moment along the continuum of space and time.
David S. Rubin
David S. Rubin is an independent curator, writer, and artist. He has been active in contemporary art for 40 years and has held curatorial posts at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans; MOCA Cleveland; Phoenix Art Museum; and the San Antonio Museum of Art.