A Conversation with Maren Karlson

PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 14
INTERVIEW BY EMILY FRIEDMAN

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From her studio in Berlin, Maren Karlson makes drawings of powerful Amazonian women interfacing in a world of recurrent tropes that range from dominatrix Mickey Mouse, hyper-geometric interiors, and half-burnt cigarettes. The character is mammoth, with undulating arms and an anthropomorphic braid; badass, aggressive and splendid. Her ladies hold their fists high, they’re vulgar and violent and unapologetically beautiful. Distilled, it echoes that 1981 “Stairway to Cleveland” song by Jefferson Starship: “Fuck you, we do what we want.” Don’t question it.

I mostly want to talk to you about your recurring female character. She’s like this rad 70’s powergirl in platforms and stilettos. I want to know more about her.

As a young girl, I’ve always felt very strongly that no matter what I did, no one would take me seriously. I figured it must have been because I looked a lot younger than I was. Anything I did was called “cute”, strangers would always touch my face or give me pats on the head, and I constantly felt like no one would ever expect anything big or ambitious of me. I am using the female character in my drawings as an outlet for the secret wish to be more intimidating, less cute, more assertive, and less nice. She basically embodies everything I have always wanted to be.

It is important for me to portray a female that is expressing extreme emotions, especially negative ones like anger, fear, resentment, rage, schadenfreude—aggression isn’t really something that young girls are taught to express freely. Haven’t we learned that if we want to appear as strong women, we don’t show any feelings because feelings are weak? I am putting all my frustration about the status quo into drawing—I want to draw girls who are unafraid of spoiling the fun, who demand the expression of feeling, who are proud to ruin an atmosphere that shames women for speaking up, who confidently take up the space they deserve, and who will never be scared into being silent because they have nothing to lose. I can’t always gather the courage or the energy to speak up, or I miss the opportunity to do so, or I am too stunned to say something. I use drawing as a way to be more courageous, loud, and unapologetic than I dare to be in real life.

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There are a couple recurrent tropes in your work: the woman, obviously, the cigarettes, the ferociously powerful platform shoes and the stilettos, the spotted dog, the somewhat dominatrix Mickey Mouse, the brick walls, and then, finally, the male figure, often on the margins. What do these symbolize to you?

It’s funny; I don’t actually smoke cigarettes in real life. It’s too expensive, and I’m too sensitive for it physically. I have been obsessed with the idea of smoke lately though, anything that distorts or blurs: more gray-scale than black and white. I’m also really into shady women smoking in dark alleys, luring unsuspecting men into their claws…

I’ve been drawing huge stilettos because they look amazing, but I can never get myself to wear them, so again I’m living vicariously through drawing. They’re also this very obvious symbol for hyper-femininity, as well as an actual weapon. Heels also make you tall and tall women seem to pose a real threat to a lot of people, like they’re not womanly enough because they could probably physically overpower men, or at least look down on anyone who gets in their way. Or maybe it’s just because it’s a threatening thought that a woman would take up space and be an actual physical presence that cannot be ignored and pushed aside.

What is your creation process like? Do you plan out the drawings or is it a more free-flow process?

I used to be obsessed with planning them out down to the very finest detail because I’m kind of a control freak. I had a very technical, systematic way of drawing. Recently though I have been trying to work more intuitively. Thinking before creating is very important to me—I have never wanted to be someone that makes without any intention, without any consideration of the world around her. These days I’ve come to think that it is also important to let go and not censor yourself before you have even made anything. I’m trying to create without thinking or judging while I do it, and accept any idea that I have, no matter how “bad” I think it is. There will always be time for judgment later.

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Can you discuss the pieces Die Diddlmaus—Fragen an Beate Zschäpe and Warum schweigst du? on Beate Zschäpe? Why “new German pop star”? Sardonic satire?

Die Diddlmaus—Fragen an Beate Zschäpe is a small comic zine I made last year about the German right wing terrorist Beate Zschäpe. Warum schweigst du? is a spread from that comic. Beate Zschäpe was part of this terrorist organization that existed in Germany between 1998 and 2011 called the National Socialist Underground (NSU). “Die Diddlmaus” is what Beate’s friends and neighbors called her in Zwickau, the small town she lived in with Uwe for years and led a completely normal life without the NSU or the huge gun arsenal in their apartment ever being discovered. “Diddlmaus” is also the name of a really weird looking German cartoon mouse that everyone including myself was really obsessed with in primary school.

The reason I call her a pop star is because of the way she is talked about in Germany—she is almost a weird icon. Either people completely dismiss her agency and say she’s really stupid and just followed along with Uwe and Uwe. That she was just an accessory, their lover and/or housewife. Or she is being portrayed as this mysterious public enemy, a secret genius (she even got compared to Ulrike Meinhof), and a “killer slut.” In my opinion she isn’t one or the other. She just seems like a completely average person, not particularly clever, but not particularly stupid or sadistic either, which makes everything she did so much harder to understand. I made this little zine about Beate and the NSU because I was reading about her at the time. So much of what I read frustrated me and I felt like the only way to talk about the whole thing was to ridicule it, to gather all the completely absurd facts about the NSU and its media coverage and show how the story seems like a parody of itself. Some absurdities include the fact that the NSU made a neo-Nazi propaganda video out of Pink Panther footage, their neo-Nazi take on the Monopoly board game called “Pogromly” (you buy concentration camps instead of streets) that they made to sell on the neo-Nazi scene, or the fact that German newspapers had a series about her outfits in court. They always reported on how she loved animals and had two little kittens.

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I read the amazing interview you did with Katie Alice Greer in 2013 and I loved the discussion on not needing to ask permission—of yourself or of your social circle—to enjoy something. How does this principle influence your drawings and the type of projects you chose to participate in artistically?

As I was also telling Katie back then, I find it very interesting to see that there still seems to exist some kind of underlying assumption that if you’re moving around in a somewhat “artistic” alt scene you’re supposed to despise anything that is “mainstream,” especially pop music, and especially American pop music. If you like Taylor Swift, you must be doing it for some kind of ironic shock value. It’s almost as if a genuine un-ironic love for Taylor Swift is not allowed to exist, which seems really ridiculous to me because she is such a good songwriter and also seems to be very much in charge of what she is doing—she is everything I look for in a musician. Recently though I have been feeling that the lines between what is considered mainstream and underground have become progressively blurred. A lot of people acknowledge that the distinction between the two doesn’t matter so much anymore, and that you can find an interesting phrase, sound, color, and shape in any kind of context. I’ve always found that looking for inspiration literally anywhere is the best mindset to have. It helps me grow as an artist and keeps my ideas fresh. I always try to appreciate everything that I am surrounded by. The design of a candy wrapper, a pop song you hear at the Späti, the window decoration of a hair salon—these things have the potential to be inspiring if you only try and look at them a certain way. I am especially fond of anything that is considered too trashy, too cheap, too silly, too plain, or not intellectual enough to be called “art.” I like art, but I hate the exclusiveness of it.

How much does geographic place influence your work? Do you have any thoughts on being an artist in Berlin?

It’s been very luxurious to live in Berlin as an artist. The rent is still relatively cheap, and I can afford to buy nice things at the grocery store without having to hustle too hard. A while ago I was obsessed with the thought of moving to New York because I was getting of sick of Berlin, but I came to the conclusion that I really don’t want to work three jobs just to be able to barely get by, so I decided to stay here for a while. In the end it doesn’t really matter so much for me where I am geographically though, if I can live for cheap and have my environment inspire me I could be anywhere. Something that frustrates me about Berlin sometimes is that I feel like a lot of people stay isolated, they don’t really care about new input or creative exchange, don’t want to leave their little social circle, and don’t really care about meeting new people because they “already have friends.” I might just be bitter because I never really felt cool enough for a lot of scenes here, but I’m not seriously complaining because I’ve got some amazing and inspiring friends who are really supportive, which I’m really thankful for!

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What are you working on now? Whom are you listening to now? Any artists (visual or music-based) that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m working on a lot of drawings and paintings for a magazine that is published by a graphic design studio in Munich, also working on a little silkscreen zine, and on an upcoming gallery show in the fall. I listen to Enya and a lot of new age music all the time because it doesn’t distract me when I draw. Also Shigeo Siketo! And a lot of vocal church music because my Christian parents brainwashed me into liking it and it reminds me of my childhood, plus I love the emotional and melancholic quality of it. My favorite right now is Johann Hermann Schein’s “Israels Brünnlein.”  I bought a zine last week that consists of a talk between Robert Moog and Clara Rockmore. The zine is being published by this Italian girl who started researching all these texts and little fragments about the beginnings of electronic music that are kind of hard to find now because they’ve either never been published or are out of print, like a documentation of the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, or an essay by Daphne Oram. I found it super motivating to just go and make things. I am always most excited about my friends’ work here in Berlin who are all illustrators/geniuses, really inspired by Brie Moreno’s work at the moment, and I dig Jeffrey Kriksciun’s work a lot too. I went to a show recently of the so-called Haus Maria Frieden Gruppe, which is a group of artists who met in the art therapy group of a mental institution here in Berlin. They all never attended art school and instead are all completely self-taught. I was really impressed with their work, especially with Kurt Wanski’s drawings, because they seem very intuitive and completely free of scheming or strategy, or any kind of vanity.