“Spatial Ambiguity”

Marcia Fraerman and Julie Karabenick, Hofheimer Gallery



“Abstract” is an adjective that is often loosely or incorrectly used and maligned by artists as well as the general public, which is remarkable given that abstraction is the oldest expressive style known to humans.

It’s been around since cavemen uttered their first grunts, chiseled designs onto stone tools and painted designs on cave walls with charcoal and earth mixed with animal fat.

The noun “abstract” refers to a consideration or summary of the general qualities or characteristics of something, its essence, and is by no means synonymous with the term “non-representational.” Within the doors of perception, every color, shape, sound and sensation can serve to reference something of the real world.

Hofheimer Gallery presented a sophisticated pairing of two abstract painters working within prescribed geometric vocabularies and modernist modes to suggest endless subtleties and allusions.

Viewing the exhibition, one might assume Marcia Fraerman and Julie Karabenick to be close colleagues, but this is not the case, as they were not previously acquainted.

The works of both Fraerman and Karabenick imply urban rhythms and architectural environments. There are no curved lines or shapes to be found anywhere. Fraerman’s work presents spaces without any figurative elements; perhaps human presence is implied by reference to citified territories and the art of weaving. Karabenick’s works also insinuate metropolitan arenas and stage sets, but with the possible inference of dancing figures.

With the appropriation and repurposing of historical idioms of painting, some viewers might be tempted to pass this exhibition by as neo-geo rehash, but that would be a mistake. Both Fraerman and Karabenick offer a crisp, contemporary edge that’s all about nuance and modest variation.

Modernism aspired to ameliorate and transcend socially brutal excesses that were wrought by the Industrial Revolution and had culminated in the horrors of World War I. Artists sought new ways of seeing and a breaking from all previous cultural norms that had led to massive terrors.

The embrace of the universal over the personal was a major tenet of modernism and had been paramount for early abstract painters such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Joan Miró, Paul Klee and Mark Tobey.

After World War II, abstract expressionism inadvertently derailed this catholic vision in a state-sponsored attempt to contrast the myth of the heroic individual, like the Marlboro Man, against the specter of communism; but the macho, hard-drinking bravado of the crew at New York’s Cedar Street Tavern was a dramatic act not tailored for the temperaments of following generations of artists.

While pop art sought consensus through a fascination with consumer culture and mass-marketed imagery, conceptual art’s insider elitism and postmodernism’s ensuing “anything goes” aesthetic have led us down a cultural path towards our current identity-driven sectarianism.

Today, more than a century past the birth of modernism, it can seem almost shocking and irreverent to encounter the re-emergence of universalist idealism in art. With “Spatial Ambiguity” and similar shows, we’ve come full circle to a thoughtful, meditative and referential approach to abstract painting.

Fraerman’s Square Inch (2011) resembles a monochromatic, double skyline of tall buildings separated by a haze of white light. The tableau is 20”x20” and consists of 400 one-inch squares ranging from white to black. The calm gray twilight and urban-generic design could just as well signify the 16th century mud towers of Shibam, Yemen as New York City.


Marcia Fraerman, Fair and Square I, 2009. Acrylic on canvas,

20” x 20.” Photo courtesy Hofheimer Gallery.


Fraerman’s Fair and Square I (2009) is also composed of one-inch squares but offers a full spectrum of colors. It’s a horizontal rectangle with 24 vertical columns of squares and 20 horizontal rows. These interwoven rows and columns are slightly wavy and ragged, maintaining a reassuring human touch.

The design is symmetrical along a central vertical tower of warm reds. Colors transition from the middle outwards through a full spectral range, like a photographer’s color bar or windows in a postmodern urban jungle.

Fair and Square II (also 2009) appears to be a larger, vertical version of Fair and Square I. The most striking aspect of this replication is how much the resemblance is obfuscated by a simple rotation of axis, the degree to which things change. This reminds one of a commonly expressed proposition: “Let’s look at it a different way.”

Square One I (2010) is a smaller version of Square One II (2018). Again, there are squares that conjoin to form interweaving rows and columns. The first is 20”x20” and composed of 1” squares while the latter is 40”x40” and composed of 2” squares.

Both pictures are symmetrical down the center and consist of monochromatic black, white and grays. The left half of each appears to be raised one bar above the right half, which evokes a swaying motion. The center of each half is grayed, giving the impression of vertical veils.

It’s an intriguing design wherein a little goes a long way, just as the 88 black and white keys on a piano can produce every kind of music and emotion. The pairing of similar designs demands consideration of issues of scale and uniqueness. Without dates, one might also question which came first and which is a copy.

The gallery’s back wall displays a quartet of Fraerman’s work from 2008: Dark Night I, II, III and IV. These dark and heavily textured works are variations from an earlier series that was brighter and less textured: Green I, Red I, Yellow 1 and Blue 1, all painted in 2003. They are like explorations of modal musical theory applied to the visual arts.


Julie Karabenick paints on square formatted, cradled panels. The painted background color of each work extends to cover the edges, which are meant to be integral components of the paintings.

Her six works in “Spatial Ambiguity” are modest in scale, ranging from 24”x24” to 29”x29”. Each design floats, centered within a blue-gray or white background, and nothing extends beyond the picture plane. Shapes used are primarily triangles, trapezoids and rectangles. The overall look and feel evokes the aesthetics of the jazz era.

Edges are very sharp, clean and high contrast. Masking tape never gives such crisp edges; it always requires meticulous touchups. Colors of all shapes are applied in multiple layers of liquid acrylic to achieve a lush bioluminescence and uniform satin sheen. Since 2013, almost all linear elements in these works have been diagonal. The avoidance of horizontal and vertical components replaces stasis with constant motion and sets Karabenick apart from Mondrian.

The most striking feature of Karabenick’s work is the thoughtful, delicate and masterful use of color that so well serves her signature-style geometric constructions. For several years now, she has been using Adobe Photoshop to design these complex psychological labyrinths and enable myriad adjustments of hues and tints.

The shapes themselves fit together into groupings that collectively form an entire composition. These sub-groups can suggest architectural space, crystalline structures, geodesic forms and even origami. In five of the six pictures included, ample black shapes flicker from background to foreground like dancing figures or Kokopellis.


Julie Karabenick, #63, 2017-18. Acrylic on cradled wood panel

29” x 29.” Photo courtesy Hofheimer Gallery.


The geometric landscape of shapes in #63, 2017-18 is centered and floats upon a lush, blue-gray background. The palette is diverse and consists of complex color mixes. Thin ultramarine blue lines divide the black spaces and create compartmentalized environments. If one’s eye is invited to take a walk through this scenery, it’s impossible to find a destination.

Karabenick tastefully pares down the color palette a bit in #65, 2018. Here, peachy flesh tones, yellows and earth tones tumble with whispers of violet and wine reds, like kites on an overly windy day. From a distance, expanses of black, sliced by narrow burnt orange lines, merge to form a figurative mystery out of which emerge a few oases of flat white. The background on which everything hovers is a jaunty battleship gray. As in all her other works, each corner is a little different.

Tints of purples dominate #24, 2013. The four sides of this design run parallel to the cradle’s edges. Corners are truncated, diagonal and intricate. The warm red line work is kept to a minimum while a surgically white background emphasizes the architectural integrity of the design. Karabenick’s masterful color combinations always amaze.

“Spatial Ambiguity” is a curatorial delight that respectfully presents Fraerman’s and Karabenick’s works in a chance encounter and deep conversation with each other while also making a strong case for each artist as they face off across the gallery. These are paintings to contemplate and savor over time.

Though both artists accept the fact that painting does serve a decorative function by hanging on walls, they go about utilizing this function to its fullest and most intellectually engaging potential.

Bruce Thorn



Bruce Thorn is a Chicago-based painter and musician. He has degrees in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a Contributing Editor with the New Art Examiner.

Marcia Fraerman, Square Inch, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 20” x 20.” Photo courtesy Hofheimer Gallery.

Julie Karabenick, #65, 2017-18. Acrylic on cradled wood panel 29” x 29.” Photo courtesy Hofheimer Gallery.



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