Farrah Karapetian knows how to orchestrate a memorable image. With its bold theatrical façade, and formally reductive lexicon, her work is shadow play of considerable nuance and complexity, engaging rigorously with issues such as space, scale, surface, narrative, and performance. Yet perhaps the work’s most striking aspect is its timeliness: using photograms—a medium that was pioneered nearly a century ago by Man Ray—Karapetian has created a practice that is distinctly, often startlingly, of the moment. Subjects of her pieces have included illegal immigrants, civil protesters, riot police, and US army veterans.
As a photographer who works sculpturally, without a camera, Karapetian has created a truly interdisciplinary practice. Talk to her about her work, and the topic veers from mark making to ancient Greek pediments and pottery. “Part of what’s fun about the photogram is that it divorces the image or the characters from the context, and relief sculpture does that,” she notes. “So does the amphora—the black and orange pottery that’s just a field of black, and the characters on it. Obviously, there’s more going on in the atmosphere of a photogram, but it’s certainly divorced from its original context and therefore divorced from the documentary. To me, that’s a big part of what the color fields do—they suggest reenactment, they suggest fabrication.”
Born in LA, Karapetian studied photography as an undergrad at Yale, but found her herself instinctively rebelling against the aesthetic that emphasized the purity of the photographic image: “A perfect print, that was not handled physically, and didn’t exhibit its physical nature.” From 2006 to 2008 she attended grad school at UCLA, where her teachers included James Welling, Catherine Opie, and Charles Ray. “I got to UCLA, and they give you this big space, so you’re able to think three-dimensionally, and so all my thoughts about photographs being objects suddenly became realizable,” she recalls. “And I could look at shadows, the way they went on the floor.” She discovered photograms by chance, after a trip to Kosovo, when she banged her hand in frustration on a photo enlarger, and a light went off. Her first large-scale work was made in 2008 and 2009; titled Stowaway, it depicts a U-Haul with a man—presumably an illegal immigrant—standing inside, amid rows of soda bottles. The piece was inspired by reading online that agents at US border crossings used X-rays on trucks to scan for illegal cargo. To create the piece, Karapetian built a transparent mock-up of a truck, added plywood shelves, hired a worker to be her model, then drove to the desert to find a collection of 200 Mexican Coke bottles, finally setting up the scene in front of vertical strips of photosensitive paper. As with all her work, the shoot is just the culmination of an elaborate process of research and preparation that then resolves in a flash (and a rush to get it to a processor to be developed). “The first time a person engages with me in this process, they always laugh,” the artist laughs. “They’re like, ‘That was it!?’”
In Riot Police (2011), she created a tableau in which several silhouetted figures clad in riot gear stand clustered at the left side of a deep purple field, divided into five vertical panels, while a protester lies stretched out at their feet, resolving the almost triangular, classical configuration. It’s a startling scene, its formal asymmetry enunciating the stark asymmetry of power it depicts. In fact, the actors playing the riot police were art world friends, but garbed with helmets and translucent shields, they are sharply convincing. An ensuing work depicts protesters in Egypt, set amid texts from a government pamphlet.
More recently, Karapetian has begun to employ real people’s memories in her practice. After describing her interest in muscle memory and physical communication in a class, one of her students, a veteran, approached her to describe his actions in Iraq. The resulting project used a group of actual US army vets, gripping translucent guns made of resin, to reenact a method of breaching an entry called “stacking up on doors.” Silhouetted against a field of acrid orange, Karapetian’s veterans were deployed around the doorway of LA Louver Gallery, as part of their 2013 “Rogue Wave” show. The same year, Karapetian created another semi-site-specific work—a ruins made of block-like photograms of ice—for OCMA’s California-Pacific Triennial, and a public artwork in Flint, Michigan, relating to that city’s blue collar workforce.
Notably, for all their loaded content, Karapetian’s works do not declare any specific political POV, so much as they present formalized narratives, turning what would normally be portrayed in documentary terms to a fictive reenactment. She explains: “The photograph is conventionally understood as the document of an event; but what happens when the photograph is the event itself? This is something I think about when I’m staging a reenactment in the dark; it’s something I think about when I install a photograph sculpturally, so that the viewer has a life-size experience of an object, a place, or an event. It’s all focused on re-humanizing the photograph, making it manual, hands-on, experiential, and surprising.”
Like a photojournalist, Karapetian seems drawn to troubled places, taking the experience she gleans back to her studio; this winter, she will be traveling to Kabul to create a music video for an Afghan youth rock band. The interest in music coincides with the new body of work she will be showing in January, at Von Lintel Gallery, in Los Angeles. In this case, the muscle memory and performance reenactment were provided by her father, who used to be a drummer. As per her elaborate shadow process, Karapetian created a faux drum set in eerie silhouette, with translucent cymbals, and had her father practice drumming with it at her LA studio. On the walls, a large photogram of her father playing drums shares space with images of female musicians, instruments, and a red flowing curtain. As yet, the final make-up of the show, titled “Stagecraft,” remains to be determined. “I’ve made a lot of work that I’m not going to end up using. I started thinking about stagecraft and spotlights…”she muses. “What interested me most… was really the vulnerability and drive of creative practice.”
art ltd. magazine