Karen Ann Myers loves painting women, specifically pretty women in their underwear. They've been her subject of choice for years, but if you ask her why, she doesn't have a simple answer.
"The paintings began as an investigation of myself, so they're really deeply rooted in self-portraiture," Myers says. "In some ways I still think of these as being self-portraits, and these friends of mine are stand-ins for me. My identity is sort of defined by my relationships with my friends, my sisters, and family members.
"It would get boring to paint a ton of paintings of myself," she adds. "And I've done that. There was a time when I was only doing paintings of myself for many, many years, so I feel like I've made way too many paintings of myself."
Although Myers still paints a single self-portrait ever year "as documentation of growing and maturing," she now enlists friends as models to pose in her own bedroom. Her home studio on the Eastside is filled with aerial-view paintings of scantily clad, reclining girls wrapped in blankets or quilts, gazing out into space. Their surroundings are sparse, brightened by rugs, wallpaper, and bedding in clashing geometric prints — thus the name of the show at Robert Lange Studios, Mouthful of Diamonds.
The women are often curled up into child-like poses, clutching their stomachs or their blankets in a protective way. There's an introspective, intimate feel to each piece, with a sexual undercurrent.
"It does have to do with intimacy, the power of sexuality," Myers says. "I think that it's a complicated time for women to understand the power of their sexuality, especially beautiful women. It's a really powerful thing filled with all sorts of complexities and so the paintings are also a lot about vulnerability, intimacy. In some ways it's about my love of that and also my disgust of that and how the mass media affects women. We're bombarded with these advertisements of really beautiful women, and that affects the kind of work that I do."
But, she's quick to note, "I'm not trying to make this big, bold, preachy statement, because I don't know that I have a statement to make yet. I'm still investigating it and trying to understand, to investigate human psychology, specifically young female psychology. And for me human sexuality is a really interesting place to do that."
And the bottom line is, Myers just happens to like painting lingerie. "I've painted women nude. I've painted women clothed," she says. "Part of it has to do with the fact that lace is really pretty and I like painting lace, so a lot of it does have to do with formal issues. I enjoy the colors and the patterns."
Myers works from photographs of her models, doing much of the early planning of each painting on her computer. In the right-brain-dominated art world, she's a bit of an anomaly. The self-professed control freak doesn't like to draw. Instead, she meticulously plans out every piece on her computer, pulling from a digital archive of photographs and images she's collected over the years. "Every time I start a painting, I look through my collection of photographs that I have taken of rugs, photographs of bedding, wherever," she says, pointing out a chair in one painting that she spotted in an Athens hotel room. "That's my version of a sketchbook ... I'm the weird person in a restaurant saying, oooh, this chair's really awesome, and getting up and photographing it from an aerial perspective."
The background patterns are a defining characteristic of her work as well, and have been since an early critic warned her not to ignore the background of a painting. Early works were more subtle, but she says, "Over time, the patterning is not really taking a back seat. In some paintings I think the pattern dominates over the figure and that creates an interesting environment, because then the viewer is confused about what they should be looking at, and I kind of enjoy that. They're in competition with each other for viewers' attention."
Myers logs her hours when painting patterns, carefully calculating how long each one will take (46 diamonds at an average of 25 minutes each will take 19 hours, for example). She's in the market for an old-school punch clock to help keep track of the passing time. She stays entertained by listening to music and NPR. "It's kind of my version of meditation," she says.
Mouthful of Diamonds also includes a number of new screenprints that Myers created in her studio at Redux, where she served as executive director until she took a job at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in 2011. Reminiscent of floral wallpaper, the prints feature couples in various stages of coitus subtly embedded throughout. If you weren't looking closely, you might not even notice the figure of a man giving cunnilingus to a woman. For Myers, these pieces are a fun way to explore color play, drawing from the influence of one of her favorite artists, Josef Albers.
Myers has been exhibiting at Robert Lange Studios for just over a year now, and her pieces have been selling well. She's been featured in New American Paintings magazine, and Oxford American named her a "Superstar of Southern Art" last February — she was No. 6 out of 100, if anyone's counting. But she's most proud of having her work travel to universities across the country.
"I define my success based on exposure of my work," she says. "Most artists feel successful when they sell paintings — and certainly I'm excited to sell paintings, and excited by the fact that someone would want to own something and put it in their home. That's a real honor. But I am very interested in having my work be visible in educational institutions, because then there's the opportunity to link up with a women's and gender studies department, work with students, work with art students, and do studio visits. That's really important to me and I love that." Myers' job at the Halsey affords her such opportunities as well.
"The ultimate success would be I create a body of work, it travels around the country and would maybe one day leave the country, and then after a year of traveling and being exhibited in different communities and my getting to go ... then it would be sold and go into the private collections. That's something that I'm working toward." a