"Mature Grass, Summer 01," 2006-2008, Oil on Panel, 12" x 12'" x 2"
Photo: courtesy of Robischon Gallery
Karen Kitchel's oil on canvas series Home, Home on the Range: Not the Same Old Song laments a cherished past and exposes the reality that contemporary people live at a distance from nature. Each painting contains two images that play a visual tug of war. A background of lush sprawling mountains and pastures is covered by smaller renderings of industrial telephone poles and tract housing. By presenting two disparate views of nature, the artist insists they represent nature occurring at the same moment. Cursive letters whimsically designed like stitched riding rope spell out selected verses from the beloved Western tune. The juxtaposition is both clever and foreboding, as the romanticized pastures of the West recede deeper into the overwhelming industry that threatens to erase a landscape etched into our memories.
Landscapes have informed Karen Kitchel's practice for nearly 30 years. Her detailed renderings of animals, flora, and leaves of grass with oil on wood panels reflect a sense of dislocation, and a meditation on the changing perception of nature. The paintings are a negotiation of landscape art as Kitchel stresses that she "rejected that conventional, distant view of the landscape out there somewhere as a pleasant thing for us to contemplate. I have pretty clearly rejected the idea of nature as a muse." Unlike derivative landscape paintings that depict an unchanged and hermetically sealed view of the landscape, Kitchel observes the changes that common species such as crested wheat grass endures and paints what she encounters in its environ. Often painting the same subject in a series of smaller panels, Kitchel wants her viewers to experience a "time revealing relationship" with her work so that the duration necessary to reveal her works help to "explore our relationship to the land." Kitchel is careful to refer to nature in quotes because, as she explains, "it's not a worshipful situation," and the quotations "acknowledge that it's a construct."
Beyond the French doors of Kitchel's home studio in Altadena, California, exotic succulents explode beyond the brim of their terra cotta pots. The manicured garden is a source of inspiration for Kitchel, who frequently collects samples, or "fragments" as she calls them, such as leaves, weeds and flowers. Her engagement with her practice inspires her to study each subject in a variety of ways: through detailed renderings in the field, photographs, taking impressions of plants with printer's ink, and even work with botanists. Currently Kitchel is busy creating a new body of mixed media works using oil, pencil, paper, and wallpaper arranged on a sheet of canvas tattering at the edges. Anxious to continue exploring the connectivity of the landscape, Kitchel collected weeds from the splintered sidewalks of Central Park and the same type of weed when she returned to LA. In juxtaposing flora from LA and New York, Kitchel proposes that the two locales are not as dissimilar as we thought. Kitchel explains that by "focusing on a plant that has superior survival skills, I can do a very detailed investigation of one place and it could be the other place. I'm also exploring how investigation into more detail can result in a shared experience.” By incorporating actual botanical patterns from wallpaper, patterns, and historical sources with pencil studies of the subject, Kitchel poses a similar question as that in Home, Home on the Range; how do we perceive landscape as a subject? Is it bought by the yard like wallpaper, by the acre, or can it even be measured at all?
A continued debate rages on in Karen Kitchel's work, which attempts to distinguish "nature" from the idealized Nature. Her art exposes how we identify with these constructs in ways that assuage the guilt caused by our inability to assume responsibility for our actions in making landscapes disappear.
Karen Kitchel will be showing her new body of work "Seasonal Overture" at Robischon Gallery in Denver, CO from March 6 - April 7, 2010. Her work will also be on display in the permanent collection at the Denver Art Museum. "A Relative Condition: the Landscape of Karen Kitchel," a 30-year survey of the artist's work at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, WY, runs January 22 - April 11, 2010.