If artist Karen Moss’ work is all about environment, that doesn’t mean it’s limited to only one. From the urban to the natural to her own psychic space, Moss’ imagery comments on humanity and the way in which it seeks to connect with all that is around it — often removed from the very thing it hopes to embrace, as expressed through consumption and technology.
Moss’ work, currently on display at MCLA Gallery 51 through April 24, is a partnership of painting and collage, where found material is placed in such a way that their original realities are altered to exist within Moss’ artistic universe. It’s one of idyllic, innocent children and hybrid creatures coexisting with gritty street scenes invaded by gaudy fashionistas. Moss’ universe is a place of futuristic fantasies that coexist with the world she takes in.
“I’m kind of a flaneur,” Moss said. “I like to roam the streets, just absorbing the variety of types.”
The work at MCLA Gallery 51 focuses on urban malaise as represented by the homeless, the punks and even the moneyed and fashionable, all as witnessed by Moss’ own eyes. But it’s also an urban jungle populated by bird/human baby hybrids and other weird creatures.
The most recent of her work to be featured in the show is the “Red Dumpster” series, which encompasses many of her concerns as it captures street scenes.
“There’s all different kinds of characters in there,” explained Moss. “My son is a metal drummer and he used to live in this really seedy music practice building in Allston, and I’d go over the sometimes to see him and there would be guys hanging out on the dumpsters, sitting there and looking at their phones. I would take pictures of what was going on there. The figure of the guy who’s homeless in the first one is made out of the actual real estate section.”
Among the regular cast of characters featured in Moss’ work are children that she has pulled from her collection of vintage coloring books. The kids in these books, which date back to the 1940s and 50s, are often pushing baby carriages, though World War II era images might have them loading gun cartridges, with boys wearing soldier helmets.
“There are all these ones about girls playing girls stuff and boys playing boys stuff,” she said, “so I’ve taken those and fooled around with the gender issue, having little boys playing with dolls and ironing clothes and doing all the girl things. And also having cute little kids loading weapons on destroyers.”
Moss maintains her own library of clippings and photos from magazines, newspapers and other sources to pull from, with a special interest in fashions — particularly those that imitate animal skins — and general news. Her ideas might start with her street experiences, but it’s these folders that help Moss map out the further imagery.
“I had the idea of doing the dumpster series, and I was also thinking about homelessness,” said Moss, “so I started combining images from the different folders. I’ll spread them out, make a collection of images, and start figuring out how I want to assemble them. The reason that collage is really good is that I don’t have to make immediate final decisions. I can move things around. I can copy them. I sometimes use xerox.”
And her materials can come from other sources as well, like CVS fliers that she collages together by color uses as backdrops. In the foreground, are the usual suspects who populate her world from image to image.
“I just started assembling various characters.,” said Moss. “I have a cast of characters that I use in my work, like the little girls and the hybrid animals and the punky looking street kids. They’re part of my repertoire of personalities.”
One image represents the nexus between Moss’ earlier work and her current style is “Solitary Triptych” a surreal black and white work featuring one of her signature little girl characters, somber in its presentation of the human relationship with nature. That’s been a concern of Moss’ creative work for over 30 years.
She started out as a science art educator doing residencies in schools that involved research on pond and ocean life. Her earlier work focused on butterflies and insects, realized through Japanese patterns, and these painting proved popular to private collectors, banks, law firms, but Moss was looking for something else and started focusing her paintings on ants, thanks to an interest in social insects and a meeting with Polaroid artist Lucas Samaras.
“He said he really liked my ant paintings, but I had to make them weirder,” she said.
She did, which, as Moss describes it, got her “kicked out” from the nice gallery on Newbury Street that was representing her. They didn’t like the “strange ants.” Moss didn’t mind so much. At the same time, she had discovered the coloring books and her art was about to radically change into the work that is currently on display at MCLA Gallery 51.
Part of Moss’ concern with ecology and humankind’s relationship with nature also has a place in her interest in more futuristic matters like robotics or bio-technology, which both often find places in her paintings and Moss says are direct inspirations from her tech-centered home in the Boston area and the interests of her husband, a science fiction book collector and future studies teacher.
One painting on display at the gallery particularly illustrates how all these ideas manifest themselves in Moss’ work. “Walking The Dog,” which features a woman in a flower-covered jumpsuit walking a robot dog, is just one of the characters in Moss’ images who crave nature even as they are completely displaced from it, ironically embracing technology masquerading as nature instead.
“They’re only connected superficially,” Moss said. “That has to do with our alienation from the natural world.”
Moss’ images are playful, and while critical of the the things they depict, they do not attack the figures featured. That’s part of the balance and voice that Moss has developed in her paintings and collage, brimming with ideas, color and whimsey, but always with something behind them of a more serious nature.
“I’m not pounding it into your head,” she said. “I want to seduce people into it and then make them wonder, ‘What is this really about?’”
Originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.