Whitehot Magazine

On Cynthia Karalla

Angels, from the Cracked Ribs series.


By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST January 7, 2024

Cynthia Karalla’s most recent show, which was curated by Susan Nelly, was in a very much of our time location, a swell apartment on New York’s Upper East Side that was up for sale. Karalla uses photographic materials, equipment and practices to make her art and the work on the wall included a series in which curvilinear black shapes bloom energetically on white paper. Karalla has said that finding herself in a negative situation often precedes the making of strong work and had found herself in such a situation right before this show. She had bought a sheaf of photographic paper from a shopping site located on Craigslist only to learn in her studio that it had already been exposed to light. “It was completely useless,” she said. She called the salesman who blithely told her “It’s Craigslist, Toots!” 

Darkroom experience had made Karalla aware that areas of dead white paper go pitchblack when photo developer is applied so she loaded a brush and polished off the series of shapes. “I had Asian calligraphers in mind,” she says. “But they made lines straight down, like a penis. I thought I’m a woman, I’m going to do an O.” 

Karalla had begun her career painting and sculpting.  She would sometimes play around with a camera. “But it wasn’t that difficult or challenging so I didn’t think that much about it,” she says. She was working as an assistant to Andres Serrano, the artist/photographer, best known for Piss Christ, his photograph of a statuette in a golden glow generated by his urine. “I would be doing some of the stills on shoots”, she says. “Andres looked at them and asked why don’t you do this?” She indicated giving a Nah. It’s too easy! shrug. That had been 2000. The following year she was in Sassi di Matera in Southern Italy, her refuge of choice, and a gallery that had seen images of her work, offered a show. “I didn’t have anything made. And I didn’t have time to make something,” she says. 

From the Evolution of Alice series.

It would have to be photographs. “I had no choice.” But of what? Sculptured saints in the local churches came to her attention. “Many of them were bloody,” she says. “I started photographing them. Local people were furious. They thought I was making the saints bloody through Photoshop. I wasn’t. But my exhibition was canceled.” 

So photography wasn’t that easy. But a larger gallery picked up on the hubbub, Karalla got her show, along with dollops of press, and shortly launched herself onto another project, a series of portraits of a man in his thirties. It had an iffy beginning. “I said something and he thought I was saying something rude. Then I realized the similarity between him and the Mona Lisa.” she says. “And I had to convince him that he was definitely the Mona Lisa.” 

Who was the guy? “He’s a capoeira instructor, which is a Brazilian type of self defense,” she says. He was persuaded. “It was turning lead into gold,” Karalla says. “It was taking somebody who was negative about himself and making him positive. It was taking a human being and turning him into a supreme being. I took 3500 photographs of him in eight. days. And each time we would shoot we would get closer to something … the psychological aspect, the mental thing. Now everybody knows him as the Mona Lisa and he’s proud of it. Everybody calls him Mona. Or Mono.”

Photography was now absorbing Karalla’s attention. “What I’m doing is more challenging for me because I’m coming up with new and different ideas about what can be done with the camera,” she says. “Now I love it. And that’s why I went back to film. Because there are more challenges in the darkroom than just straight up shooting. Other things that instantly pop up in some way or another. I’m doing something that I have no idea where it’s going. It’s going to be a surprise to see how it comes out. And that’s how the whole thing works.” 

In 2004 Karalla began putting together Baby Grand Piano, an image of a six foot piano keyboard, assembled from photographs of 88 penises, 52 white and 36 non-white. She noted that the guys were mostly hauled along by a woman. She was asked this week  to show Baby Grand Piano at the Venice International Art Fair, kind of an auxiliary to the Venice Biennale. That same year she shot Flash & Failure, an attempt to have her camera do her work for her. “I was trying to figure out a process I could deal with that I could sleep and when I woke in the morning my work would be done,” she says “There were four different attempts. I had the camera open in the dark while I was sleeping.” But not enough light came in: That was F-Up number one. Three more F-Up days followed. Then she decided to build a light-proof box. “The first day that I shot inside the box, what happened? There’s too much light! It’s like daylight inside. It’s nothing, it’s worthless. So now this box is in my place in Italy and it ends up becoming this conversation piece, friends of mine saying what is going on with this box? So I ended up photographing my friends.”        

Fatlands, which she worked on in New York in 2010, connects fat and money. Human fat. “Only the rich can afford to extract their fat. I got some surgical fat from a doctor” Karalla says. He worked with her on the project, “We had to get an OK from the person whose fat we were using.” Why was the OK necessary? “If it turned up in a garbage can it could seem like we murdered someone. So they had to know about it with a promise that their name would never be exposed.” 

The money was real too, kind of. “I did research on the most ridiculously expensive things for sale on earth” Karalla says. Her findings included pictures of a one million dollar hubcaps, an equally pricey cake and a 1.5 million dollar dog collar. She re-photographed them alongside the flesh. She indicated one image. “This is a $30 million dollar bikini. And here’s the fat,” she said. “It’s one diamond here … one diamond here … and one diamond there That’s it! And he’s not going to put his wife into it. He’s going to put some teenybopper into it”.

Brooklyn Bridge, from the Bleached series.

Bleached, Karalla’s project between 2014 and 2016, began very literally with the negative: Photographic negatives. “I wanted to see what I could do to make them into something else,” she says. “I took bleach from under the kitchen sink and threw it on them. Some of them were completely wiped out. I would take what was on them and crowd them up together to see what would come out. I did this project unedited not to have a premeditated idea of what it would be but to surprise myself,” he said, and indicated a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge. “The Brooklyn Bridge becomes this beautiful thing.

The Evolution of Alice, the series she made in 2016 while Karalla was working in the darkroom of the Institute of Contemporary Photography, was figurative and motivated by her mordant view of the political situation. “When you were down in the darkroom the whole city could be destroyed upstairs and you would never know,” she says. “It was done with three cameras. I made a montage. And then, when I got home, and the silver prints were dry, everything was so dark. And that’s when I took sandpaper to scratch into it, to try and bring some light into this darkness we were going into, this whole dark age.” 

Why call it The Evolution of Alice? Like Alice in Wonderland, she said. “It just seemed normal for the name to be that. Because here I am, I’m in the darkroom the whole time. I’m in a hole and seeing what is going on, and just being mortified.”

The latest work is also entirely different. Clothes have, of course, always been messaging, veering from LOOK AT ME!!! to do please ignore me. But Karalla contrived to make other people’s clothes the vehicle of her own promo with the Robin Hood project, namely her purchase of eighteen white tees in an H&M store in Manhattan on August 1st2023. She imprinted the backs with her website’s QR code and - a bit fearful of arrest for a new crime - sneaking them back into the same store. Did it work? Yup. “Many, many people have got in touch,” says Karalla, gleaming.

It’s unusual for an artist to not stick with a signature style but not unknown – Hello, Pablo – but it’s beyond unusual for a photographer and this, I assume, is why Cynthia Karalla doesn’t work with a single dealer. No matter, the work speaks for itself. WM


Anthony Haden-Guest


Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.




view all articles from this author