“I am disturbing the notoriously romantic terrain of landscape painting. In the tradition of natural history scientists, I work from specimens, field studies, photographs, and observation, as well as the literal materials of contemporary industry.” – Karen Kitchel
Within “Austerity Measures,” recognized Colorado/California artist Karen Kitchel begins her exhibition with a trio of small petroleum-based “Energy Study” paintings – as a nod to the series premier in an earlier Robischon Gallery exhibition titled, “Out of View.” Kitchel’s ongoing investigation of industrial development and its collision course with Nature at large and the immediate landscape underfoot, has resided in some form at the heart of the artist’s various bodies of work for many years. Known for her sensitive and meticulously rendered paintings of American grasses, Kitchel continues to expand upon her signature visual language via scale and complexity and by overtly harmonizing with this new parallel body of environmentally-resonant work. In the small urban-scape petroleum paintings, Kitchel pointedly co-opts the very materials and byproducts of industry as her primary artistic medium with intent to advance her conceptual imperative. Always comfortable with disrupting the traditional and expected approach of the unspoiled vistas within landscape painting, the new series is freely in direct opposition given its use of the problematic materials of asphalt emulsion, tar, oil, wax, powdered mineral pigments and shellac on canvas. Kitchel states, “These paintings are dirty – a toxic, addictive combination that directly targets all of us dependent on the grid while we simultaneously indulge in fantasies of pristine nature.” With the clear incursion of towers, while alluding to the seemingly endless miles of transmission cables across the skyline, both subject and employed materials serve to convey the artist’s concerns regarding the ever-present role of energy structures in the landscape. This artistic engagement surrounding demand and desire, locates the viewer urgently and unflinchingly in the precarious present. Adding to the intent and intimacy of her linked series of tightly-cropped grass views, Kitchel’s “Energy Study” paintings act as a reminder of America’s dependence on potentially finite resources.
Simultaneously, “Austerity Measures” also marks the return of Kitchel’s lavishly-painted investigation of dried grasses. Each mesmerizing work, greatly expands the scale of the grass itself - on both small and larger scale panels – while they reveal, layer upon layer in astounding fashion, the resulting meditative and optically vital compositions. The artist adds, “The cropped, sharply focused images embody the seductive physicality of oil paint, but reject conventions of horizon line, panoramas, grandiose scale, or a lofty ‘God's eye’ view.” The darkened, rich palette and depth brought about by the complexity of the arranged individual blades belies the lack of water that brought them into the linearity of their drought-stressed state. Previously, the artist referred to her brown grasses as dormant, awaiting the turn of the season to be revitalized green anew. By contrast, the smaller grasses of “Drought Picture” and the larger verticals of the “Terra Incognita” paintings on view, unfurl, by their titles, a contrary line of thought – questioning the subject of traditional landscape in regard to a kind of compartmentalization or categorization, as in what’s considered desirable and what’s not. Even as the glorious complex waves of painterly oversized blades spill forth over the individual panels, the title Terra Incognita suggests that the land itself is cloaked in its own foliage, a disguise of brown alone that is not the grasses’ only true character, but instead, indicative of a transitory state as it awaits the return of new growth. As if to reemphasize this promise, a single, fluid green mark on Terra Incognita 5 signals that for all the stresses imposed upon it, the resilience of the land will not be denied and offering a verdant talisman of optimism. As one of many impacted individuals in the recent fires and floods in southern California, Karen Kitchel creates all of her works from a exceedingly thoughtful and personal stance. The figurative scale of each work in the vertical “Terra Incognita” series directly reflects the height and width of the artist, both relatable and personally felt – as each sensitive series within Kitchel’s overall exhibition serves to also speak to a sacred goal of improved conditions and the hope for a shared reverence and protection for the land that sustains.
Karen Kitchel has a B.A from Kalamazoo College and an M.F. A. from Claremont Graduate University. Her work is in numerous permanent collections, both nationally and internationally, including Denver Art Museum, Palm Springs Art Museum, Tucson Museum of Art, United States Department of State Art Embassies Program, the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE, Ucross Foundation, Whitney Gallery of Western Art, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY and The Children’s Hospital of Denver, among others. The Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, Wyoming presented Kitchel’s retrospective entitled “A Relative Condition: The Landscape Paintings of Karen Kitchel” which brought together paintings from Kitchel’s cohesive, over thirty-plus year career as a unique artist of the Western landscape. Additionally, she has exhibited at Heritage Art Museum, Sandwich, MA, Riverside Art Museum, Riverside, CA, Carnegie Art Museum, Oakland, CA, Tucson Museum of Art, Phoenix, AZ and the State of California Capital Building, Sacramento, CA, among many others.