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A Conversation with Karen Green on Art and Forgiveness

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In 2009, artist Karen Green made "The Forgiveness Machine." It was a strange seven-foot-long plastic apparatus that allowed people to write down whatever they wanted to forgive or be forgiven for. You put the piece of paper with your forgiveness wish in at one end and it was sucked through the machine and shredded at the other end. Voilà! Instant forgiveness. There were so many wishes submitted that the machine eventually broke down.

The machine was inspired by the mixed emotions Green felt about her late husband, the author David Foster Wallace, who had committed suicide in 2008. The machine helped her return to her art-making and channel her grief. It looked like a giant colorful children's toy and was a central work in her first show, "Latent Learning Experiments," for SPACE Gallery in South Pasadena, California.

Since then she has continued her creative journey as a way to make herself whole again as an artist in the aftermath of a searing personal tragedy. As she told the Guardian earlier this year on the occasion of the publication of Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King, "I think I'm supposed to buck up and be the professional widow," she says, with another quick laugh, "and I have found that very hard. Very hard. I mean one day you are a couple living in a little house and watching The Wire box-set for the third time, and letting the dogs do their antic stuff, and then suddenly you are supposed to be functioning as the great writer's widow. That wasn't how we lived when David was alive. I felt about him like I would if I had been married to a sweet schoolteacher. So I ignored everything for a long time. Until now, really."

Green's latest show, "Tiny Stampede," opens Sept. 24 at SPACE, and presents a view into widowhood that is both cleansing and illuminating without ignoring the finality of death. For her third solo show at the gallery, Green created nearly 60 mixed media miniature works that take the idea of the stamp collector's album as well as the idea of something being stamped in one's memory as a starting point to explore perennial questions such as identity, love, death, sorrow, and faith. Each miniature becomes a meditation, a journey into a world with its own language of color, texture, and emotion. There's a tactile dream-like quality to the works mixed with a delicate subtext of nightmare and horror.

I asked Green why she chose to work in the miniature mode, "The primary reason for the size," she says, "is that I feel small in the world. Some of it has to do with being shrunken by shrinks, and that's humor and wordplay, but to feel small in the world is a reasonable and realistic response to trauma and loss, I think. To feel small is a reasonable way to feel in response to looking at the stars; never mind trauma and loss."

Although there's a serious edge to the show, Green's humor comes through as it did with the forgiveness machine. The works are so tiny and dense with imagery and intimation that we peer into them, literally squinting in search of meaning. That recalls a scene from the film, Synecdoche, where the only way that viewers can see miniaturized oils (painted by Alex Kanevsky) is by wearing magnifying spectacles that make them look like mad characters in a Lewis Carroll story. (The full conversation with Green along with images from the show can be seen on The American Show.)

Max Benavidez: What is the relationship between colors and grief?

Karen Green: Before I lost my husband, I started making lists of what I called "unimaginables" and I organized them by color. In hindsight, it was a way of organizing fear and hoarding faith. It was not a preparation for his death; quite the opposite. Death is very black and white: After he died I felt like I couldn't see anymore, I couldn't find beauty, I couldn't see in color.

All of the pieces are done on pages from a postage stamp collecting book from the 1800s, and they are color-coded so collectors know where to put the stamp. I love that they are so specific about the colors -- vermillion and carmine, blue and red. The color prompt was built into the pages and guided me. Guidance is Good.

The black birds have been showing up in my work for a few years. Sometimes they're crows, sometimes Wallace Stevens' Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, sometimes imagined, endangered species. The black bird in one of the images happens to be a turkey vulture. Poor, ugly creatures; the chambermaids of road kill.

MB: Talk about stamp collecting and the work in the show. I'm struck by your idea of using the fingerprints of widows.

KG: Stamp: to impress with some permanent and conspicuous mark, to crush, to stigmatize; to impress or fix permanently on the mind or memory. To imprint: "when first His active hand imprints the secret bypass of the soul" (Mark Akenside, 1744) or my favorite found sentence: "Tom had such a feeling of having lost his identity that he wanted to reassure himself by the sight of his little belongings." (Garrett, 1885)

The point is: One thing led to another. Imprint led to fingerprint. Identity has roots in the word, "sameness" -- absolute or essential sameness: oneness. Which led me to thinking about Absolute Identity vs. Accidental Identity, and the word "widow" and widowhood as a kind of club nobody chooses to join -- and my own arrogance in thinking I am/was special in my resistance to the word or its imposed meaning.

My shuddering is every widow's shuddering; it's a collective shuddering.

MB: Something that really struck me is your use and choice of language, of memorable snippets. Some that stand out: "Bring me a song like Forgetting." God said, "I made a man abruptly leave." Are you trying, as Shakespeare said, "to give sorrow words" alongside the image.

KG:I've been making this "found poetry" for years. I thought I invented it, but found out later I most definitely did not. Some of these are taken from a poetry anthology--I cut out just the first lines and spent an afternoon or two rearranging them. Then I got into a trance and cut those up and rearranged those. Trances are hard to come by these days; I am happy for those hours. And yes, "to give sorrow words", sneakily, using the words of others who tried to do the same.

MB: There is a line from the Bible that says "a crown of beauty for ashes." That seems to resonate here in your work. Do you think or feel that beauty heals grief?

KG: I don't think beauty heals grief, nor do I believe that love conquers all, but both of them help.