Off-Kilter: the art of Karen Moss

My last post was about 1980s art at the ICA; let’s switch gears and move up to the present day and the artist Karen Moss (go to to see her portfolio).

Off Kilter, Moss’ latest show, runs through March 22nd at the Women’s Studies Research Center gallery at Brandeis University. It’s worth the schlep out to Waltham to see it (while you’re there, check out the very engrossing Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation and the stretch of ethnic restaurants and shops on Moody Street).

It’s kind of strange when you become friends with someone who’s creative for a living. You first get to know their public, out-in-the-world-buying-groceries-persona…and then there’s the secret side that you’d never see, if not for their art.

I continue to be fascinated by the two Karens I know. There’s her fun-loving, party-throwing, gregarious side; and her artistic side that examines our society’s excess and brutality: its frivolity (plastic surgery, recreational shopping), madness (gun violence, scientific experiments gone awry), and destruction (climate change, industrial pollution). She’s horrified by what she sees, but is willing to poke fun of it with her provocative, disturbing artwork.

Humor, horror, and fantasy: Moss’ mixed-media paintings reflect a tumultuous, post-apocalyptic society. We see children acclimatized to their dysfunctional surroundings.


Have a Nice Day. Karen Moss Triptych, 2012. Mixed media on canvas. 3 panels, each 72″x48″

Many of Karen’s hybrid creatures and bleak landscapes are modern-day versions of Hieronymus Bosch paintings, as Simmons College Art History Professor Alicia Faxon points out.

detail from Hieronymus Bosch's The Last Judgement, The Louvre Museum, Paris.

detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Last Judgement (Louvre Museum, Paris).

In Moss’ triptych, Have a Nice Day (that most banal of American expressions, symbolized by the smiley face on the trash bag blowing by on the right panel), shows children living and dealing with their world. A young girl straddles a rifle in the left panel–is it a toy or is it real? Karen created this piece well before the Newtown massacre. The image brings to mind the mindless call to arm everyone in our society, even teachers and children (bulletproof backpacks are big sellers nowadays), so they’ll be “safe” in our fear-filled, 24 hour news cycle-fueled climate.

Tiny hybrid rat-child creatures crouch in the foreground, wanting to play or maybe looking for a bite to eat. A homeless person pulls a cart filled with possessions, alluding to scenes in the media of natural disasters: Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the tsunami in Japan.

The middle panel (shown in detail below) is covered with a scrim, giving the viewer a more clouded view; a veil between past and present worlds. We see “Free Weiwei” graffiti, Moss’ tribute to the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.


detail, center panel, Have a Nice Day

I noticed this pail in a corner in Karen’s apartment and asked if I could take a photo of it as an example of the type of stuff that inspires her. It’s typical of the 1940s and 1950’s coloring and children’s books Moss first enjoyed as a child. In Karen’s art, children and their toys are ripped out of their normal context and placed in a nightmarish, toxic world.

Karen’s antique tin pail

Much of Moss’ recent work also features Barbie dolls, in various body shapes and sizes. Her fixation on creating versions of anorexic and chubby Barbies stem the popular doll’s idealized but unrealizable female form, one that young girls are indoctrinated to want to look like, with her attenuated legs and form.

This Barbie, a dessert worshiper (see the wall art), is probably on a weight loss program. The graffiti artwork Barbie bought to decorate her living room went from a brick wall on the street to a canvas in her penthouse apartment. It’s no longer a radical statement lashing out against authority but a hot commodity; a symbol of Barbie’s downtown cool.

Barbie Odelisque, Karen Moss, 2011. Acrylic on paper and acetate collage.

Barbie Odelisque, Karen Moss, 2011. Acrylic on paper and acetate collage.

The factory off in the distance outside the window spews toxins, reminding us of what fuels our mindless consumerism. The crap we buy from China by the container load comes at a steep cost to the factory workers who toil inside and the environment outside. This Barbie’s leisure is a byproduct of slavery and subjugation, courtesy of a mall or online emporium near you.

Barbie, lying on her chic daybed, is trying to live up to the ideal of perfect woman, but even she’s gained weight. All the surgeries and creams in the world won’t stop this Barbie from growing old and dying, metaphorically and literally. The same goes for all those Botoxed and fake-boobed Barbies living in our world, too—sorry to all my cosmetically-enhanced girlfriends out there—you know I love you (I’m not judging!), but you know it’s true.

the original Grande Odalisque by Ingres, 1814 (Louvre Museum, Paris).
the original: Grande Odalisque by Ingres, 1814 (Louvre Museum, Paris).

Barbie, inspired by a postwar German sex toy, was originally invented by Ruth Handler, Mattel’s co-founder, who named the doll after her daughter. As Miriam Forman-Burnell writes in

The origins of Barbie–the most popular doll in the world in the last half of the twentieth century–can be traced to Lilli, originally a Das Bild comic strip character of a saucy blonde, later produced as a pornographic doll popular among bachelors in postwar Germany. While on a trip to Europe…Handler discovered Lilli, the prototypical doll she believed would enable girls like her daughter, Barbie, to imagine their future selves in roles other than that of mothers. (Baby dolls dominated the postwar American toy market.) Male designers…modified the German sex toy into a teenage doll…encoded with the prevailing feminine ideals of both purity and prurience and a consumer culture ethos. Barbie…and her extensive miniaturized haute couture wardrobe were marketed to stimulate consumer desire among America’s youngest shoppers.

Who knew? Now you do. And now you can do your daughters a favor and stop buying them Barbies.