ACTIVE ART “Banner #7” by Karen Gelardi, cotton, linen, nylon thread, 2009.
Two recent groups of Karen Gelardi's studies of nature (she calls it "botanical propaganda") harness a bold and painterly craft aesthetic among the rough wood benches and baskets of lush melons and gourds in the open industrial space that also serves as a popular restaurant and farmers' market in downtown Belfast.
The hand-sewn fabric assemblages of "Banners" and photocopied posters of "Drawing Constructions" celebrate playfully extracted forms from the natural world: coral, twigs, buds, seaweeds, and flowers, which are reduced to carefully messy gestures. Repetition and pattern in the works mimic modern commercial textile design, and while aesthetically pleasing, at times lean too heavily toward the purely decorative. Overall, a rough handling of mundane materials and the isolation and deconstruction of decorative elements generate an off-beat commentary on industrial production and the value of the hand.
Ten "Banners" are raised like flags in the space, varying in scale and elaboration. Installed casually, the works are deliberately wrinkled and creased, highlighting their connection to utilitarian textiles. The banners are more like fabric drawings, with brightly hued cotton and wool marks jumping from earthy raw linen. The formal elements are often homage to Matisse's later cut-outs, stark and monochromatic organic shapes defined by sharp lines, but Gelardi's forms are even further distilled. Their simplicity allows them adaptability in reception, at once referencing a perforated leaf and a high-rise, the lines of routes or rivers spliced from an atlas, or a totem.
In "Banner #2" six minimalist floral forms harkening to Andy Warhol's 1970 flower prints pop from the dusty linen in oranges, reds, and deep purples. The fragmented shapes are figural, denying strict representation. One larger-stemmed element hovers over the rest, both a lily and a swallow with wings extended. Other shapes are circular fallen petals, with whisker-like stripes ripping through them.
While Gelardi's forms are lovely and sophisticated in themselves, the depth of the work is lent by her connection to craft and to the weight and texture of the textiles she uses. Stitches and knots are left exposed, and rips and tears in the materials provide a raw freshness that the works would lack were they meticulously clean. Fabrics are patchworked or layered where the artist decided to manipulate a form already sewn onto the linen canvas.
Gelardi's compositions are whimsical, but find a tension in directly engaging an edge or being flush to one side. "Banner #7" sits on the bottom edge of the canvas, pointing to the unevenly cut borders. In a fleshy palette of hot pink, maroon, and deep brown, a collage of elemental forms conjures body parts and seed pods. The pieces are engaged and interacting here, becoming head, torso, limb. This, coupled with a horizon line, makes this work the most narrative and active in the show. "Banner #12" pushes the compositional boundaries the farthest, also emphasizing Gelardi's sensitivity to color relationships. Two polygons overlap like a jagged Venn diagram, one raw linen and the other a bright crimson, playing backdrop to a graphic brain coral-like shape that bleeds from a sunflower yellow to a candy pink.