Girlish Whimsy and a Heavy Dose of Nostalgia: Brook Hsu and Maren Karlson’s Fantasy World

Los Angeles

at in lieu

Brook Hsu and Maren Karlson: And The Dark Enters It, 2019, oil and ink on dibond, 16 by 12 inches; at in lieu.


Like many a female friendship, Brook Hsu and Maren Karlson’s “Finders’ Lodge” was a playful, tender, and occasionally messy thing. Shrugging off the prospect of a traditional two-person show, the artists assembled an installation that interwove their works. Hsu and Karlson met in Los Angeles several years ago, when Karlson began using the garden shed next to Hsu’s apartment as a studio. The new neighbors grew close over the meals they shared before Hsu moved to New York and Karlson returned to her native Berlin. They formulated the exhibition as a tribute to their time spent together on the West Coast, and the friendship they now tend from afar.

The artists seemed to rejoice at an opportunity to break free from the heavier stakes of their burgeoning, more formal art careers—to pursue something more lighthearted. “Finders’ Lodge” embraced a slapped-together spirit, and in its most charming moments, operated like a series of notes passed between friends, dense as it was with a private language. Two wall-mounted paintings served as a nod to a more conventional gallery presentation, and carried out a clever tête-à-tête: in one, a small canvas that Hsu adorned with grassy-green ink nested inside a larger one that Karlson painted in her signature psychedelic flora; the other reversed the configuration. Together, the works formed a pair of unusually wondrous exquisite corpses.

The gallery floor was strewn with hay, with a few bales stacked in a corner for seating. On one of the gallery walls, Hsu wrote, in spiraling letters, the lyrics to “Initiation Song from the Finders’ Lodge,” a folkish ballad sung by a nomadic tribe in science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1985 novel Always Coming Home. (When Hsu and Karlson met, they bonded over their love of the author.) “Please bring strange things / Please come bringing new things,” the ballad begins, and Hsu and Karlson abided. They brought dozens of peculiar paintings, drawings, and ceramic sculptures to LA for the show, and arranged most of them haphazardly on a long table in the gallery. It was a feast of objects, a messy monument to the artists’ shared meals.

The show’s patent unseriousness often manifested as girlish whimsy. The artists seemed to fixate on the greener pastures of childhood, a period in which playfulness is permitted and fantasies can run free. Karlson, in particular, proved to be a master of make-believe. In her colored-pencil drawings, molten, cartoonish characters frolicking through verdant forest scenes in platform shoes and jewel-toned eyeshadow suggest fairy-tale figures from the Y2K era. Her ceramic works, which included a heart and a star made out of ropes of clay and embellished with flora and smiling faces, could decorate a child’s bedroom. Hsu’s drawings, meanwhile, were fanciful doodles and dashings-off of words and phrases in the aforementioned green ink: food, love, baby, her own name. On one wall, she reproduced a text she had written as a child, in which she listed the animal sounds she loved hearing on her family’s farm. Hovering above the hay, the text piece spoke to a pastoral, prelapsarian idyll, an innocent girlhood now gone. Whether the world Hsu and Karlson put forth in “Finders’ Lodge” exists in the past, the future, or only in their imaginations, they are clearly escaping to it together.


This article appears under the title “Brook Hsu and Maren Karlson” in the October 2019 issue, pp. 93–94.