Above Image: Karen Sorensen, Fallen Angel
This week, I’m focusing a blog post on the work of American artist Karen Sorensen. Karen got in touch with me via email, and we have since been to-ing and fro-ing with our thoughts on the art world and its perception and perceived value of women artists and their work (in both the monetary and aesthetic sense). This is particularly poignant seeing as we celebrated International Women’s Day on the 8th March (in the UK at least). I was, of course, also very taken with Karen’s work.
One of the focal points of Karen’s conversations with me, was her choice between art and motherhood. Karen told me that she had chosen creativity, as to pursue both would have left her completely exhausted. To put this into more of a context, Karen was hospitalised during a prodromal phase of schizophrenia when she was nineteen years old, after which she began to see the world in exquisite detail and colour.
During the particularly bad stages of her illness, Karen makes art as a reward or to make herself feel better, which inevitably results in complete exhaustion to the point where she is no longer able to lift her arms. This process of invigorated creation lasts for about four hours, after which Karen knows her day’s work is done – and done to the absolute limit of human ability.
Karen also notes the limiting effect that many anti-psychotic drugs can have on her ability to produce creative work. Because of this, Karen understandably has a strong affinity with British ‘outsider artist’ Nick Blinko. Similarly to Blinko, Karen’s work changes depending on what sort of medication she is taking. Her own favourite work was made, she adds, at the very beginning of her artistic journey, when she needed very little medication.
Over the course of our email correspondence, Karen and I spoke about Madge Gill and Aloise as examples of two well-known female outsider artists. Both their work, Karen noted, is fairly ‘feminine’ in its aesthetic appearance, with both artists using the female figure as their focal point. In contrast, Karen’s work – for me anyway – contains some more masculine themes, such as male genitalia and ejaculation. Even Karen has noted this herself.
Motifs regaling ideas of reproduction are dotted throughout Karen’s work – and are what I seem to be drawn to the most. The twisted legs of female characters are perhaps indicative of the baby versus creativity dilemma that Karen has faced throughout her life. For example, in ‘End of Life’, we can see the tight twist of legs on the female character at the bottom, in contrast to the ‘loose legs’ of the male figure she is holding the hand of. Above this couple, a pregnant goat pulls a flying cart which holds the severed heads of grey-face women.
In ‘Zoo Train’, Karen’s most recent work, a king and queen bring up the rear of a train carrying animals – presumably a sort of touring zoo or circus. Again, the woman’s legs are wound tight, as she holds the hand of her king, whose penis hangs below his clothing. The ejaculation of the male character reaches a small bowl (which brings to mind a garden bird bath) in the bottom right of the piece, another familiar motif in Karen’s work.
Life, reproduction and creation feature most commonly in these bright, fantastical pieces; umbilical cords, bald-headed baby faced characters, pregnant creatures and ejaculation. Although the content of Karen’s work is not explicitly feminine – something we might be able to say for Gill and Aloise – the repetitive issues seem to be focused on the constant choice between bearing children or a life a creativity. Through her work, Karen has born new life. Her work is her offering to the world, and it is no less important than the offering of another human being.