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 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?

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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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?

Recently 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.

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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! 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.