Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Karen Ostrom

Holiday in Hope is the name of the fictional fishing village created by Brooklyn-based, Canadian-born artist Karen Ostrom. Conceived in 2001 in the form of photographic tableaus, the village primarily exists through the depiction of various characters that inhabit it. Holiday in Hope is manifested in threads and series; it’s an implied space that harbors references to communities transformed by industrialization, the erosion of traditional craft-based roles, and historical images of violence.

Karen Ostrom. Glovemaker, 2005; chromogenic print; 40 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Karen Ostrom. Glovemaker, 2005; chromogenic print; 40 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

This ongoing project echoes Ostrom’s biography without becoming a strict interpretation of her life. Hailing from a family of Swedish immigrants who flocked to the northwest coast in the early 20th century, Ostrom imagined Holiday in Hope as a reference to the utopian dream many of the Scandinavian immigrants held in their quest for a new home. These immigrants, in search of idyllic landscapes in which to build new and experimental communities, are in some ways the forefathers of the residents of Holiday in Hope.

Karen Ostrom. The Execution, 2005; chromogenic print; 30 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Karen Ostrom. The Execution, 2005; chromogenic print; 30 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Ostrom stays true to her Scandinavian heritage, and her tableaus have a fairytale-like quality that teems with a sense of foreboding. Holiday in Hope is a place full of irony. One of Ostrom’s characters, Glovemaker (2005), embodies a sense of paradox; pictured in what looks like a cold cell or sterile factory space, the glovemaker appears out of place. Played by Ostrom (the artist acts out all her subjects), the figure is surrounded by an array of what Ostrom calls the handglove, which she describes as “a latex glove hybridized with a human hand.” There’s a sense of tragedy in this image—the glovemaker’s craft becomes obsolete when industry is mechanized and hand craftsmanship is lost.

Karen Ostrom. Seamstress, 2005; chromogenic print; 40 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Karen Ostrom. Seamstress, 2005; chromogenic print; 40 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

In various depictions, there is also a latent sense of violence that varies in emphasis. The violence in Glovemaker takes the form of implied deterioration of the need for “skilled hands.” In The Execution (2005), however, the violence is more pronounced. It echoes one of the more brutal and iconic images of war in modern-day times: Eddie Adams’s Saigon Execution (1968). (Ostrom often uses well-known imagery as a basis for her photographs.) Perhaps this is an attempt to ground the imaginary in the real, but the positioning of the residents of Holiday in Hope in this emblematic composition also has its own peculiar quirks. Both figures in the photograph appear to be one and the same person, and the outfit is the same one that the Glovemaker owns, so is it a self-execution? There is much that is open to speculation. Even though the artist carefully constructs and layers the photographs—she shoots original images and then manipulates them in Photoshop—there is still an element of surprise. In The Execution, Ostrom reveals that the suspenders ominously spelling the word KILL was pure coincidence, but one that aptly captions the subject.

Karen Ostrom. [The Third of May, 1808], 2012; chromogenic print; 42 x 50 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Karen Ostrom. [The Third of May, 1808], 2012; chromogenic print; 42 x 50 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Another obvious reference in Ostrom’s work is [The Third of May, 1808] (2005), named after Francisco Goya’s classical painting. In this tableau, Ostrom experiments with another level of fantasy-making in which her characters move beyond their traditional roles to create a scene of community through struggle. In the caption accompanying the image, Ostrom uses the collective voice of the inhabitants of Holiday in Hope to speak about the Goya painting as a reflection of some undefined, tragic event that takes place around them. “We wanted to make a picture that meant something; that expressed how we felt about what was going on around us. When we chose Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, it seemed so perfect in its depiction—in its poignancy and urgency in emoting the injustices and indescribable horrors. However, difficulty arose when deciding who would play the soldiers in the firing squad. Although the consolation for playing that role was that their face would be hidden, it was still necessary to draw straws.” The idea for this work came to Ostrom one day while she was at a residency, a sudden vision in which she imagined she was embodying the Spanish soldier being executed in the Goya painting. Ostrom writes, “Goya’s painting surfaced in such a way that I discovered a curious complexity in the way in which my memories, after being archived, were then retrieved.” This description reveals the way Ostrom approaches her work, an intuitive process of storytelling that becomes an interpretation of historical document through the lens of fantasy.

Karen Ostrom is a Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based artist working in photography, installation, video, and, most recently, animation. She is the recipient of MacDowell Colony Artist Fellowships, Canada Council for the Arts Grants, the Duke and Duchess of York Prize in Photography from the Canada Council, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.

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