—Essay by Peter Frank
A half century after its heyday, we celebrate abstract expressionism for its romance and its rhetoric. It seems to us to have been the last “heroic” movement in art, formed and impelled by the need to say something at once grand and personal. But many – indeed, the majority of – artists associated with abstract expressionism were engaged less with the theater of the self than with the theater of the moment, the immediacy of sensation both as perceived in the world and as manifested in the studio. Abstract expressionism was above all an art of observation and reformulation. Whether its subjects were exterior or interior, worldly or private, sensuous or existential, its artworks were responses to sensation, optical and emotional equally. In this regard, while its era is long past, abstract expressionist practice remains viable and available. All those who inherit its language and its sense of meaning are tasked not with re-enacting its drama, but re-uncovering its delight in the world and in paint.
No painter understands this better than Karen Silve. Having mastered the abstract expressionist gesture, Silve has made it her own and re-animated its atmosphere. Her canvases bristle with brushstrokes that act equally as visual building blocks and as components of notation. Taking cues from Cézanne no less than from De Kooning, from Marin no less than from Mitchell, Silve embraces a history of modernist mark-making in order to respond adequately to a world of colors and volumes and temperatures. Without painting landscapes or still lifes, Silve is still a painter of space and the things it contains. She takes inspiration from the places she inhabits and the objects and events she witnesses to “charge” her art. Her paintings do not describe or even suggest her surroundings so much as taste of them. We come away from Silve’s canvases less with an idea of what the Pacific Northwest or the south of France looks like than with a feel of, and for, northern Oregon and the Mediterranean interior, perhaps in the same painting.
For all the vigor of her brushwork, Silve might better be described as a latter-day abstract impressionist. The welters of colored marks that comprise her paintings follow her heart only insofar as they follow her eye. They are not in the least superficial; indeed, they prove all over again what Monet proved, that one can celebrate light and air without being light and airy. Furthermore, for all their brushy, dripping exuberance, they are composed – the marks affixed, the hues determined – with an almost architectural rigor, a rigor that wants not to hide itself behind the efflorescence of nature but, rather, to emulate nature’s own glorious rhythms. Does a firm but wandering stroke of green signal a leaf, a branch, a tree, or a forest? It inheres all of these, but speaks foremost of the life and logic maintained amongst them.
Silve’s painting, however, is not simply about nature, but is natural, the way Monet’s and Mitchell’s is. Like those imposing predecessors, Silve is not content to reflect, but must embody, observation and sensation in her work. Every stroke of the brush must make the same kind of sense every leaf does; a whole more substantive and expansive than the sum of its parts must be woven from those parts. These paintings cannot rely on what the artist – or her audience – sees in life, they must add to life themselves, must have a life of their own beyond their references. They revel in rather than hide their own painterliness, justifying their existence not as reportage of something out there but as experience, something in here. Even as it conjures the breadth of existence out beyond the studio, Karen Silve’s art also conjures her dedication to painting itself.
Los Angeles, March 2015
Peter Frank is Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine and art critic for the Huffington Post. He is former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum, former editor of THEmagazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly, and has served as art critic for the LA Weekly, Angeleno Magazine, the Village Voice, and the SoHo Weekly News.