Karen Silve. American

Silve's intuitive and deliberate acrylic paintings unfold through layers of lush colors, aggressive brushwork and drips which push and pull off the sides of her canvases. Her paintings are based on momentary synaesthetic impressions of interactions with nature.


Artist Statement

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.
Essays

Critical 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.

Silve was born in Springfield IL. Her mother, who is the daughter of an artist and a French chef, exposed Silve and her three siblings to art through visits to museums and classes. Silve's family moved a number of times during her childhood, finally settling in Tuscaloosa AL. She was involved with art through high school and went on to receive a BFA from the University of Alabama, whose painting faculty, including the Italian artist Alvin Sella, had a strong abstract orientation. A formative experience, especially for her color sense, was the summer Silve spent painting the landscape in France at the Leo Marchutz School in Aix-in-Provence. She currently maintains studios both in Portland and in the south of France.

As an undergraduate, Silve developed an interest in Post-Impressionist and Fauvist painting, and they informed her early figurative abstractions. She studied in the graduate painting and design programs at the University of Denver, creating abstract work that was inspired by the landscape, and by the color lessons she learned in France. Later, the Abstract Expressionist painters Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, and the German artist Gerhard Richter became important influences on her work.

In 1993, Silve moved to Portland, Oregon, worked in graphic design and began to explore painterly process in a series of meditative paintings. In the late 1990s, she created two extended groups of paintings, first the Musician Series, and then the Cellist Series. Both series focused on players with their instrument, and on a feeling for music expressed through abstracting the human figure, gestural brush strokes and vibrant color.

Silve has acknowledged the role of personal experience in shaping her work. In 2006, the death of a pet and the illness of a friend both moved her to find a new mode to express her own inner reality through painting. The work that emerged involved rhythmic, calligraphic brush strokes and drips of paint. Evolving from this period is the ongoing series of abstract paintings that Silve continues to create. Crucial to these paintings is their physical immediacy and their connection with the natural world. Silve expresses this as being "within nature", and includes the sights, smells and memories that an encounter in the world can generate. The artist's involvement with nature extends to her activities as a gardener, hiker and biker. Some of her current paintings draw upon the markets she encountered during a recent trip to Mexico.

In 2008, while working on a series of green paintings inspired by the forests of Oregon, Silve found a way to "create the dynamism of the moment" by turning to the computer to aid her in restructuring a painting in progress. She has also used Photoshop to create digital collages, using element of existing paintings, to serve as a studies for a new canvases.

Silve has exhibited her work extensively in solo exhibitions including at the Portland Performing Arts Center, Tuscaloosa Performing Arts Center and West Linn Public Library, West Linn OR.

Group exhibitions include those at The Institute for American Universities, Aix-in-Provence, France, Jemison-Carnegie Heritage Hall, Talledega AL, and the Art in Embassies Program, Doha, Qatar.

Biography

Silve was born in Springfield IL. Her mother, who is the daughter of an artist and a French chef, exposed Silve and her three siblings to art through visits to museums and classes. Silve's family moved a number of times during her childhood, finally settling in Tuscaloosa AL. She was involved with art through high school and went on to receive a BFA from the University of Alabama, whose painting faculty, including the Italian artist Alvin Sella, had a strong abstract orientation. A formative experience, especially for her color sense, was the summer Silve spent painting the landscape in France at the Leo Marchutz School in Aix-in-Provence. She currently maintains studios both in Portland and in the south of France.

As an undergraduate, Silve developed an interest in Post-Impressionist and Fauvist painting, and they informed her early figurative abstractions. She studied in the graduate painting and design programs at the University of Denver, creating abstract work that was inspired by the landscape, and by the color lessons she learned in France. Later, the Abstract Expressionist painters Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, and the German artist Gerhard Richter became important influences on her work.

In 1993, Silve moved to Portland, Oregon, worked in graphic design and began to explore painterly process in a series of meditative paintings. In the late 1990s, she created two extended groups of paintings, first the Musician Series, and then the Cellist Series. Both series focused on players with their instrument, and on a feeling for music expressed through abstracting the human figure, gestural brush strokes and vibrant color.

Silve has acknowledged the role of personal experience in shaping her work. In 2006, the death of a pet and the illness of a friend both moved her to find a new mode to express her own inner reality through painting. The work that emerged involved rhythmic, calligraphic brush strokes and drips of paint. Evolving from this period is the ongoing series of abstract paintings that Silve continues to create. Crucial to these paintings is their physical immediacy and their connection with the natural world. Silve expresses this as being "within nature", and includes the sights, smells and memories that an encounter in the world can generate. The artist's involvement with nature extends to her activities as a gardener, hiker and biker. Some of her current paintings draw upon the markets she encountered during a recent trip to Mexico.

In 2008, while working on a series of green paintings inspired by the forests of Oregon, Silve found a way to "create the dynamism of the moment" by turning to the computer to aid her in restructuring a painting in progress. She has also used Photoshop to create digital collages, using element of existing paintings, to serve as a studies for a new canvases.

Silve has exhibited her work extensively in solo exhibitions including at the Portland Performing Arts Center, Tuscaloosa Performing Arts Center and West Linn Public Library, West Linn OR.

Group exhibitions include those at The Institute for American Universities, Aix-in-Provence, France, Jemison-Carnegie Heritage Hall, Talledega AL, and the Art in Embassies Program, Doha, Qatar.

CV

born Springfield, IL

education
BFA University of Alabama
graduate work, University of Denver, CO

Reviews

Music has done more than inspire Karen Silve. It has permeated her art and become as much its fabric as pigment. Silve's relationship to music is so thorough and supple that she has created essentially two distinct (though often intermeshed) series out of it: the more figurative "Musician" series and the almost completely abstract "Works Inspired by Music." And the latter category is further divided into paintings that sum up her involvement with a piece of music that tend to be vertical, and horizontal works that are more narrative and seem to unfold the way a classical musical composition unfolds. Silve has concentrated on the violoncello, the particular physical attitude of a cellist at work. A cellist makes a cruciform with his instrument: the elbows-out position of both arms is the horizontal element to the straight-up seated posture of the musician with the instrument between his knees. In some paintings the cellist is part of the composition, but both the player and the instrument are undergoing a faceting in the cubist manner. Paul Cezanne and Willem DeKooning are the two artists Silve cites as her central artistic inspiration. Their influence is so palpable that they might be considered pillars of her art. Cezanne paved the way for abstraction by his reducing subjects to their essence. The body of Cezanne's work that seems most relevant to Silve is his many paintings of Mme. Cezanne seated in various chairs. She doesn't sit still, or rather the artist doesn't show her sitting still, as he tries to establish a solid form, one that is bendable but not breakable. Later in the 20th century, gesture served to convey the immediacy of action. De Kooning was not a full-fledged action painter, but his figures, especially the strapping Women that inspire Silve, have solidity with gestural action as its underpinning. The notion of the spontaneous gesture lives in Silve's painting as the elusive and fleeting passages of music to which she gives form.

William Zimmer
New York City
January 2005
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