Contemporary Painter

About Karen: American Abstract Artist

—Review by Ann Landi

There are certain idioms of 20th-century art that have proved to be remarkably fertile and resilient territory for younger artists right up through the present. One is geometric abstraction, as pioneered by Constructivist and Bauhaus artists nearly 100 years and developed by Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers and later the adherents of Minimalism. Another is Abstract Expressionism, the unabashedly spontaneous and often lyrical impulse that marked a definitive American style and the first great break with European traditions in the late 1940s.

It is to the latter tradition that Portland-based artist Karen Silve belongs, and in the last two years she has found fresh and exuberant life in an approach many may have considered played-out. Like her famous progenitors—Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Joan Mitchell—Silve depends on a certain degree of spontaneity, the impact of the immediate gesture, to draw viewers into her paintings. To paraphrase the great New York School critic Harold Rosenberg, What goes into the canvas is not a picture but an event. In Silve’s case, it is the act of remembering landscapes, music, or even a particular friend. She brings her whole body to the task of painting, as Pollock did, feeling the energy running through her system and imparting a sense of corporeal presence and gesture to paint and canvas. Significantly, many of her works are human-scaled—sometimes the same height as the viewer—so that we relate to these works with our own bodies and enter into the painter’s dialogue with her materials.

Silve has spoken about the influence of music on her work, and indeed in the past dedicated a series to musicians, particularly cellists, since that’s an instrument that speaks to her profoundly. But more important for her most recent paintings—which show a huge leap in assurance and innovation—has been the impact of landscape, whether it’s the breathtaking natural terrain around her home (a scenic bonanza that includes Mt. Hood and the Columbia Gorge); the gentler territory of Provence, where she frequently spends a few summer months; or the tropical lushness of Hawaii, which offers up the drama of sky, water, and rainforest. She has trained her eye through plein-air painting, the time-honored practice established by the Barbizon School and Impressionist artists, and working out of doors in the French landscape taught her much about color and the importance of its placement in relation to other hues.
Silve’s color choices, indeed, all seem rooted in the natural world—she eschews the high-keyed chromatic approach, based in industrial and commercial materials, of many of her peers. But she’s not immune to the other possibilities of our high-tech era and uses the computer as a kind of design tool. After starting a painting, she will sometimes take a photo and feed it into the machine. Manipulations of the canvas on the screen give her an idea of where to go next; it’s a process that’s analogous to reworking a painting through scraping off pigment or turning to sketches to realize a finished composition (if you look closely, you may discern a faint grid that helps her with organization and the pulls the components together). The miracle of that process is that there’s no sacrifice in spontaneity—though Silve may spend months on a painting, its energies still seem as fresh as if it were tossed off in a day.

One of the great pleasures for this critic is to see both how Silve’s art relates to the art of the past—there are echoes of Monet and van Gogh here, as well as her more immediate predecessors—and to note her growth away from a dependence on recognizable subject matter. She seems to be moving into a realm of pure abstraction, and at this juncture in time, the possibilities appear to be boundless.

Ann Landi

Freelance journalist, Contributing Editor, ARTnews. Also published articles on art and
architecture, reviews, and criticism in Architectural Digest, The New York Times,
Art & Antiques, and other publications.

writingsKaren Silve