A sky burial is an ancient funerary custom, still practiced in parts of Mongolia and Tibet, where a dead body is blessed, dismembered, then left out in the elements where it is eaten by carrion birds such as condors and vultures. The practice is based on the Buddhist belief that the body becomes an empty vessel after death and does not need to be preserved. It’s easy to appreciate the practicality and difficult to ignore the generosity of the gesture; since the landscape makes burying or burning the body impossible, its life force is shared with other creatures. And as the body is picked apart, it is believed, the deceased’s spirit is carried up to Paradise in the bellies of birds.
Michael Kareken’s Parts drawings of car(cases) that have been left out to rust in auto salvage yards capture a similar, albeit less gruesome, process whereby car parts that would otherwise be crushed are repurposed. These luscious and beautiful drawings also observe, up close but with an objective perspective, the natural process of decay, recalling the physical and spiritual transformation of death. These auto graveyards are familiar territory for Kareken. He has been interested in the landscape of heavy industry and recycling plants for many years, starting with his Scrap series in 2007. The Parts series continues this interest in the afterlife of industrially produced materials. In this case, tinkerers and home mechanics who want to save a few bucks, rather than automated machines, are doing all the work; even though we don’t see them in his drawings, we can see how, surgically or brutally, they have scavenged the parts they need.
With the quarter panels removed, hood up, and hoses spilling out, the car guts in Disassembly are recast as a memento mori of modern automotive engineering. Even though Kareken looks closely at and captures the contours of each scene like an anatomical illustrator, he also understands how gaze and perspective create multiple narratives. Look at how the splayed features of these cars suggests the aftermath of violence and trauma; one shudders at the stopping power of a head-on collision when looking at the fractured windshield and flabby airbag in Airbag 4; severed rubber hoses dangle off of an engine block and look like fat arteries that used to carry blood and oil. It is this hybridity of form, process, and meaning that has become more prominent in Kareken’s recent work, especially the Parts drawings. He has found new ways of linking machinery to the human body and how both suffer the passage of time. In other pieces, Kareken provides a medical gaze into the cars; missing headlights are like empty eye sockets and dented grills become broken front teeth after a fist-fight; his viscous black and white palette and opaque Mylar material recall X-rays that locate broken bones beneath the skin.
Kareken shot hundreds of photos during his trips to the U-Pull-R Parts and French Lake Auto Parts salvage yards over the past few years. Sometimes he steps back to capture the scene; other times he gets close to see the individual clues. And like the pullers, he lifts his own fragments from the site and puts them to work in a new context. The photographs provide the formal structure and composition from which he begins each drawing. The cold clarity of digital snapshots is eschewed for the warmth of Kareken’s fascinating conflation of loose gestures and precise marks. He strips away the color leaving behind a black and white skeleton; a stuttering specter of the car emanates from the open roof and trunk in Convertible.
Historians of photography, especially those familiar with the collodion wet plate process used by contemporary artists like Sally Mann, will see echoes of the 19th century in how Kareken floods the duralar surface with water to dilute his conte crayons. It’s a captivating and evocative, yet unforgiving, process. The smeared edges and suspended presence of the car in 1938 is the perfect analog for the decay that has eaten away at the edges of this and other cars. And this is why Kareken is a master of both capturing and performing the transformative properties of his medium; he uses different tonalities, gesture, and line to hold the form in place as well as foreshadow the absence of these rusting steel skeletons. Because Kareken has only left the bare minimum of the image intact, his works, like the cars they capture, are vestiges of the original composition. This sense of the beautiful ruin is similar to Bill Morrison’s Decasia, a film created from the struggle to capture found footage that is quickly deteriorating. Both Kareken and Morrison have arrived at the right time to archive erosion but do so by embracing the beauty of what is created by the process rather than mourning the integrity of the material.
It could be said that the Parts drawings have a Romantic aesthetic in the sense that Kareken’s process, material, and subject matter are deeply rooted in the history of art and that he has captured a sublime and melancholic beauty. This is certainly true, but Kareken’s work accomplishes more than that since it is not motivated by the kind of restorative nostalgia that wrenches the remnants of the past into the here-and-now; he keeps the artifacts right where he found them. He also isn’t reflecting on and glorifying the past in order to indict the present. Still, why are these metal husks so irresistible? Even though the dead cars in these scrap yards don’t run anymore, they provide a surplus of brakes, shocks, tubing, and batteries that can be used in other cars. In their beautifully ruined state, the cars, like ancient buildings, are an excess of creative and historical meaning. The irony here is that the ruin is smaller than the original thing but it does, one could argue, more of the aesthetic heavy lifting. Kareken’s drawings are sites of imaginative and creative play; they are presented without the obligation of reassembling the cars in order to know “what was it” or “what did it do.”
There is nothing as constant as change. Seeing so many of Kareken’s drawings together is to have a renewed fascination with mortality and the assiduous mysteries of our existence through the generative process of decay. His drawings remind us that these ruined vehicles have not stopped working. In fact, the cars are more valuable in the afterlife since their transplanted parts provide, and make room for, new life. He is tapping into the surplus of form and meaning that these ruins create. The cars and parts take on a ghostly presence; familiar yet unrecognizable remnants of the past. Overgrown says it all: when all of the meat is picked off the bones nature will do its thing. The rusted chassis will be overcome by the grass and volunteer trees that grow up and through the frame. First it will be anchored to the ground then it will, very slowly, disappear.