Contemporary Painter

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Transitions is Karen Silve's fifth solo exhibition at Calloway Fine Art, following her enormously successful Beijing Trees series from 2017. It incorporates two bodies of work created between 2018 and 2019 and shows the shift in her compositions.

After facing the dissolution of a lengthy personal relationship, Silve spent three months alone in France where she had to confront her newfound vulnerability and how it related to her work. While struggling to adapt to her new reality, Silve turned her focus towards the mountains just within reach of her apartment but, after months of unsuccessful studio work, she realized that she would need to turn inwards to grapple with the uncertainty that hovered over her life. 

The breakthrough came in a form of a self-portrait painted when Silve was in her late 20's. Placed over her desk in her studio, it sparked the desire to produce more, a challenge in its own right but one that led to the sought-after spark and to the series that will be on display in the gallery. 

As Silve explains:

Doing self portraits can be very painful. After all, there’s nothing between you and yourself. It’s like going to a therapy session in which you have to be very honest. This powerful process made me realize the mountains were simply a reflection of myself. I was vulnerable, and realized I needed to start the painting from a point of vulnerability. The first thing I did was take a bunch of nude photos of myself. Then I incorporated them into the mountain photos. All of a sudden I started to realize a new direction for this body of work.

I struggled desperately trying to figure out how to get the nude images of me with the French landscape in an honest and expressive way. I still had nothing to show my galleries and couldn’t face going into my studio daily, or even weekly.

One day I opened my email and saw this image of Tracy Emin sitting under one of her paintings: “What are you so fucking afraid of”. Wow! This image changed the way I walked into my studio. I realized fear was stopping me from painting. But what was I so afraid of? I didn’t know. I just knew I felt it.Each day I had to enter my studio with the thought “no fear today”. I used mindful techniques to be present without fear, similarly to an experience in France when I went up in a two-seated airplane. Since I’m claustrophobic, it was a big deal. 
I needed privacy, like the way one may write pages in a journal that is never to be seen. I painted with the idea that nobody would see these paintings. This allowed me to be very honest, without fear but very vulnerable.

Almost all of my bodies of works have been based on finding a positive experience and expressing that experience on canvas. They were “gift” like, and I had a lot to give. Not these paintings. My hopper was empty and I had nothing to give. I needed to be given back to. I was surprised once I realized these paintings were giving back to me. I found strength in creating them. Nonetheless, each day was as difficult as it would be to go to a therapist every day, unveiling all of your fears one by one.

The subject changed from the mountains, to the vulnerability of myself in the mountains then, finally, to my strength from my own vulnerability. I found this to be powerful, and true.

I wrote a very personal blog about the process I went through to develop these works. You can read it here. I also wrote a blog about flying in the airplane, in which a few paintings were based on that experience. You can read about it here.

Beijing Trees

Beijing Trees

Structured Balance: Wisdom, Strength and Renewal

Traveling and the unique experiences it brings has become my greatest artistic inspiration. I went to Beijing for the first time in the Spring of 2016. I had never been to China before and wanted to experience it with fresh eyes.

A few days into the trip, I realized I was repeatedly inspired by the thoughtfully pruned trees. The blossoming cherry trees had their own vibrant beauty. However, it wasn’t just the cherry trees, but every tree throughout the city. From the parks, temples, gardens, and along the streets, all of the trees demanded respect. Many of them were just starting to leaf out which allowed me to see the structure of the trees. Such care was taken with each tree, and the older trees were well supported. In the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City, there was a very old tree with a huge steel frame around the trunk holding up the heavy branches. In the Botanical Gardens there was a 3,000 year old tree with it’s large branches supported by other trees which had been grown to hold them up.

Many courtyards had Chinese Scholar trees, which were straight trunked trees and gnarly branches. Each branch was curled then had another branch curling out, then another and another. It appeared that each curl of the branch was directly related to each years pruning. Tiny lime colored shoots were coming out of the ends of the dark brown branches.  

While walking around the Shichahai area north of the Forbidden City, I came upon a remarkable tree. The roots were meandering through the pathway, bulging out along the cracks in the stones. They worked their way up the base of the tree, creating a hollow space in the middle. A little higher than eye level, the trunk became solid. I was surprised that the hollowed out bottom could hold up the large trunk of the tree. Twice as high up, the trunk broke away into larger branches, and those into smaller branches with the beginning of the sprouting leaves reaching for the sky. At this point, I realized there were three significant parts of the tree. I associated them with wisdom, strength and new life; each dependent on one another.

The ancient traditions of the Chinese, and the wisdom of thinking in terms of centuries rather than years, was apparent in the way they nurtured their trees. Each branch was thoughtfully pruned every year, keeping them healthy. The trunk, or strength of the tree, had everything to do with its foundation. The top of the trees had new life every year. Depending on the structure due to the consistent pruning, the more blossoms there would be. All of this resonated with me. A state of renewal built on strength and wisdom became the direction of my new body of work. Something that I related my own survival to, which was dependent on my foundation and strength from my family and friends.

In our hotel room, I started sketching in skinny accordion sketchbooks I purchased in the “scholar” area of town. I first drew color blocks that moved up the page. Then, placing each shape on the corner of the previous shape, I realized it was a balanced structure I was after.

Once back in my studio in the United States, I made tall skinny canvases, similar in shape to the classic Chinese scroll paintings. I focused on three things: the strength of the brushwork, the balance of the colors and shapes, and the freshness of each mark (made visible, but not overworked). Beijing has breathed new wisdom, strength, and renewal in my life and in my work.

Karen Silve

Layered Memories: the In-Between

Silve created this new body of work after spending five weeks at her family home in northern Provence. The memories of swimming in the gentle Mediterranean, strolling around old-town Nice, hiking through the sublime gorge of Verdon and driving north along the Durance river into the clear sky of the Hautes-Alpes all influenced these new, lush abstractions. Ultimately, all of her memories, surroundings, and interactions inform these works which reveal a unique expression of harmonious color with contemplative and deliberate mark making.

As elegantly described by Peter Frank Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine and art critic for The Huffington Post Silve takes “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. ....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.”

> Read about the painting "In Between" on Silve's blog.

layered memoriesKaren Silve
Found Meditations

Many of the paintings in "Found Meditations" are inspired by Silve’s morning walks through the neighborhoods of Portland. She pauses to consider and appreciate the color of  a particular flower in a garden, the morning fog in the distance along Alameda drive, or the startling rush of coming upon a rare urban coyote. Others are inspired by the sculptures of John Chamberlain (1927-2011) with whom she has been fascinated since viewing his retrospective at the Guggenheim. She is awe struck by his success at combining rigid, impermeable materials to create expressive sculptures full of life and personality. Always, Silve is inspired by both the abundance of produce and the interactions of people at her local farmers’ market.

Only after Silve mentally records the immersive intimacy of being a part of an experience does she begin to visualize a painting. In her studio, she works in a more structural way to develop these paintings, working from the outside inward to capture the fullness of being immersed in life or nature. She builds her canvases with layer upon layer of color, much as Chamberlain built his sculptures by arranging layer upon layer of colored metal.

Market Paintings

     In these works, Silve captures the experience, discovering life’s little moments of energy and inspiration on the way to more obvious destinations in culture and nature. While her Market paintings capture the whirlwind of energy around masses of people moving through their arrays of produce in a Mexican marketplace, Silve’s nature paintings record the immersive intimacy experienced by a soul in search of a sacred place. Rather than zero in on notable landmarks, Silve pauses to consider the special aha! moments of quiet appreciation of life in culture and nature.

     Many of the paintings in Silve’s current body of work are based on momentary synaesthetic impressions of interaction with nature. For the more immersive works, Silve regularly goes hiking in the Columbia Gorge, in Oregon, a favorite area for nature lovers because of its abundant waterfalls. Silve finds plenty of nature to capture her attention along the path. Preferring the intimacy of being part of nature as opposed to the distance implied by the awe-inspiring aura of natural beauty, Silve paints apparently expressionistic but actually phenomenological abstractions that merge her subjectivity and the informe’ profusion of her natural surroundings. Her Sacred Place paintings exemplifies the almost mandala-like abstractions Silve extracts from the enlightened apprehension of a nondescript place in nature becoming, by some special intuition of connection, sacred to her psyche.

     Silve’s drive to capture energy and only energy carries over to human busyness as well in the Market paintings. Market IV “represents” Silve’s thrilling encounter with the all-over energy of a Mexican marketplace. Piles of fruits, vegetables, spices, nuts, fabric, clothing, crafts and flowers fill the visual eye field along with assaulting odors of raw meat, fish and body smells of eager villagers hustling-and-bustling while negotiating the best price. In a recent trip to Mexico, Silve had a eureka moment when she realized that the blitz of special micro-moments of the marketplace experience was a cultural counterpart to the what she was looking for in contact with nature.

     Silve’s work involves not just the eye’s capture of light but the body’s sense of its orientation in complex natural space. In addition to the obvious similarities to the work of Joan Mitchell, Silve also draws inspiration from less apparent influences, Cy Twombly poetic use of the drip, at times lyrical and even resigned, as well as Gerhard Richter’s ability to re-present found imagery in ways that are rendered, disconnecting paint from subject matter, both there and not there, present and absent, have both inspired Silve. Both of these painters deconstruct master narratives of nature or history in order to find personal niches of meaning in a world of slipping-away signifiers: Silve has sought to inform her work with that wisdom, while at the same time restoring a more structuralist appreciation of the strength and power of nature (undoubtedly derived from her experience as a nature lover not just an artist). As Silve states, describing her process of painting, “I….get lost in my surroundings, transcending from a practical place to an emotional and instinctive one.”

market paintingsKaren Silve
sacred places

These new paintings are a meditation about special places I visited during hikes around Mt. Hood and the Columbia Gorge. I contemplated over some of the untouched and intimate spaces realizing they are a part of a bigger picture; a part of evolution and mother nature at her best. I think it is the unknown that I am so inspired by; the awe of nature from something so ancient to something so current. I am fascinated with the hidden places where microorganisms, insects and animals are born, and how they are dependent on these delicate combination of conditions. There’s a quiet beauty which exists amongst the sounds of water falling, leaves rustling, birds chirping, and unseen creatures moving about. These special places have a spiritual aura that has mesmerized me.

Many of my early works were inspired by music. The process of painting to the music was very important to me because the power of music carried the action of mark making into an expressive, rhythmic painting. I would first start with a concept, then sketches, and finally start putting paint on the canvas until it evolved into the painting I wanted. In these new, more contemplative works, I used modern technology: photography, photoshop and collaging, to create my “sketch” before starting to paint on the canvas. After reaching a certain point in the painting, I would photograph the artwork in progress and go through the process again of using the computer to manipulate and collage the photograph of the painting. This allowed me to reach a profound place in my painting that I couldn’t have achieved without this process. I’m very excited about this new way of working and will be using it much more in the future.

island rhythms— essential counterparts for life and harmony

These paintings are about my overall perspective, experiences and interpretations of Hawaii. During a month long stay on the islands, I realized that in Hawaii many opposites exist together. For example: the life below water and the life above water; the love of being in paradise and the hate of island fever; the free spending tourists and the thrifty locals; the dry bare side of an island and the wet jungle side. I felt these opposites created a harmony between the counterparts that was very unique to Hawaii and was essential for life on the islands. Visually, I relate these opposites to the horizon line that separates the atmosphere from the masses of water or land. The colors come directly from Hawaii's luscious botanical gardens and the vast ocean. My hope is to show contrasting worlds existing together in harmony.

hope and healing— a poetic language of trust and intimacy

These special works were made in dedication to my friend who was in intensive care for five weeks and then overcame the impossible. During her time in a coma, I found myself desperate to speak to her. This visceral body of work represents those intimate moments and conversations during that time and through her healing process. We are who we are because of where we've been. My friend was dependent on the strength of her body which was made up by her emotional and physical history. The history of these canvases are built with layers of paint, graphite, and pencils carving into wet paint, then sometimes sanding and reworking. The color represents our tangible history and structure, while the white exhibits our intuitive sense. Many of my marks are made with my eyes closed. This process gave me energy moving from my feet, and up through my body and out through my hands. It was a dependency of trust. I was able to speak instinctively. Music has always been a part of my art and it has also influenced these paintings. I chose methodical, instrumental music with a medium uplifting tempo to give me comfort. Just like my friend gained comfort through the touch and voice of her friends. I look at these works as a language without words; a poem understood on an intuitive level. These personal and intimate paintings reveal my poems and conversations with a friend in an abstracted state of mind.

A New Look at the Cellist—

Silve’s expressive paintings are balanced with the structure of a cellist, aggressive strokes and random drips. They are her interpretations of her senses and how they interact with reality. In her paintings, her thoughts and emotions revolve around and connect to the cellist. She uses a performing cellist because it is a tangible subject which stimulates our auditory senses, but also encompasses time with a narrative quality. She places the cellist in a nonexistent environment to speak about feeling, mood and relationship rather than a cellist. Silve's work is derived from neo-expressionists, figurative artists and abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, one of her main influences. Similar to de Kooning keeping the figure of a woman, Silve uses the icon of the cellist throughout her present work. Silve uses a visceral process, painting passionate marks which result in assured lines bursting with emotion. This technique is balanced with fluid, restful strokes that exhibit a narrative or lyrical quality. She creates a history of her life’s rhythms with a depth achieved by layer after layer of paint. She strives to create a unity from the tensions of reality and the etherealness of emotions.

Karen SilveComment
Works Insprired by Music—

Portland, Oregon-based painter, Karen Silve, boldly exhibits sounds and rhythms with oil paint on canvas. Her passionate strokes land between broad assured lines exploding with emotion and fluid restful strokes exhibiting a narrative or lyrical quality.      

There are moments of calm, moments of intense passion, moments of anxiety, and moments of simple beauty in the music that inspired these works.      

Silve captures the dichotomy of harmony and dissonance in an alluring painting entitled White Composition. This was inspired by the chilling work of Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw. The sweeping large black shape in the center cuts the cello like image in half in a destructive manner, yet her fluid strokes give a sense of relief and purity.      

In contrast, Silve explores the blissful sounds from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Red Composition 6. A feeling of exploding joy from the music is described with dancing lines and vibrant colors.

Karen SilveComment
Les Violoncellistes—

In her les Violoncellistes series, Silve focuses on the rhythmic sounds played by the cellist. Her fluid strokes and subtle colors express the poetic flow of the music: the anxiety and violence, the joy and quiet beauty.

Karen SilveComment
Musician Series—

Silve's musician paintings are inspired from watching artists perform: from a deaf Irish percussionist who feels with her feet the vibrations of a symphony orchestra to a blues singer in a smoky tavern or a street musician on the sidewalks of Provence, France. Through expressive lines and shapes of color, Silve captures their consciousness turning inward, reaching deep inside themselves, their body movements reflecting the elation and struggle, the pleasure and pain of their art.

Karen SilveComment