I am primarily an oil painter whose subject is a traveler’s view looking through a window of a moving vehicle. The images are made using photos taken from inside different modes of transportation (cars, airplanes, ferries) and often, though not always, in rainy weather. Recently I’ve also been painting with black sumi ink on paper in order to challenge myself to create a strong image independent of color.
After selecting a photograph from many possible prints, the painting process begins by loosely brushing in the image’s main components. Then gradually, layer upon layer, the painting is refined until I’ve communicated its essence--not the essence of the photograph, but of the original experience. Its consequent realism is not an end in itself, but a means of conveyance. Howard Hodgkin once said, “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.” I would claim the converse: I paint emotional situations of representational pictures. The realism allows the viewer to enter into and share the experience. The painting reclaims the moment, explores its detail, and mines its emotional content. Nostalgic reverie is not the intent; rather, I aim to magnify that moment, scrutinize it, and perhaps reach a new understanding of it. These paintings are about freezing and compressing time; then elongating and decelerating it.
But they are also about roads: motorways and waterways. If the road is a common metaphor for the journey of a life, then taking snapshots and then painting them is an attempt to capture a moment in that journey. The click of a camera freezes an image that subsequently takes hours, days, weeks to paint. The difference in length of time and amount of effort between snapping the picture and creating the painting echoes the difference between the ease of blithely passing time versus the hard work of living an examined life. I create new space for contemplation and examination, both during the painting process and in the finished pieces. Throughout my years-long fixation with the familiar themes of driving, traveling and commuting, I’m also asserting that even the most mundane activities provide occasions worthy of serious reflection.
Christopher Schnoor Profile
ON THE MOVE
Karen Woods Autobiographical Streetscapes
Even when depicting the most unglamourous corners and underpasses of Boise, local painter Karen Woods’ images make an indelible impression. A lone, leafless tree on an empty lot of parched grass has both the graceful graphic simplicity of a Japanese sumi-ink drawing and the moody expressionism of a pre-abstract Mondrian. Windshield-framed roadways emerging into the afternoon sun from beneath cold, ominously shadowed superstructures have a liberating Kerouac-like romance to them. Woods’ art has the curious ability to transform the typical into something transcendent, and turn the viewer into her anonymous accomplice. Her subjects are deceivingly routine and matter-of-fact, an illusion belied by the way her paintings grab and hold us. There is a magnetism to these scenes that reflects the artist’s rapport with her subjects and her expertise in the oil medium, plus a sensibility that responds to what she calls the radiance of the commonplace.
A different kind of landscape painter, Woods has been increasingly drawn over the years to urban streetscapes, where the man-made and nature intersect. She states she is “attracted to the coexistence of natural and constructed elements in my surroundings...Cars, traffic signals, road construction, empty lots, intersections, powerlines: this is my landscape.” Woods’ focus and inspiration is her immediate environment, but it is an environment on the move, captured initially with her camera while driving around in her pickup truck. She likes the sense of passing through moving space and the mental soundtrack it creates in her art; even her earlier portrayals of forlorn arboreal subjects and impassive storage tanks had the feel of drive-by shootings. The stillness that characterized Edward Hopper’s city scenes (“that immobile moment” she calls it) is not what Woods is after in her work.
Towards this end, Woods has skillfully turned photography into a handmaiden of her painting. With this tool her art becomes an autobiographical medium, documenting her own interactions with the local environs while capturing the hum of city living, the undertow of perpetual motion. This personal perspective has led to successive projects of related works with names like Intersection Series and Connector Series (2004 and 2005, respectively), Sidewalk Series and Road Construction Series (2006 and 2007), and Behind the Wheel Series (2008)—all off-the-wall themes sounding very much outside the landscape tradition that betray a preference for the pedestrian over the picturesque. In fact, it is a continuation of modernism’s treatment of urban life from the second half of the 19th century on, an art which Woods manages to make both more contemporary yet still somehow sublime.
Woods’ exposure to a variety of urban and suburban locales is no doubt a contributing factor in the evolution of her current aesthetic. Born in Seattle, she also lived in San Diego and Tucson before landing in south Orange County where she became a dedicated denizen of the southern California beach scene. In high school she took drawing and painting classes, but at California Polytechnic State University enrolled in design, engineering, and architecture courses instead. After deciding to pursue art again, Woods studied in Florence, Italy for a year at the Studio Art Centers International in 1985. Upon her return, she moved to the Bay Area, completing her BFA at the California College of the Arts in Oakland. She moved to Boise in 1994.
Along the way, Woods absorbed a range of historical and contemporary art influences. In Florence, she was exposed to a lot of art history, and learned the importance of seeing as much original art as possible. Her interest in both Eastern and Western traditions of landscape painting let Woods to incorporate elements of both into her work, from Asian pictorial devices, designs and brushwork, to taking cues from those Hudson River School artists who elicited the transcendent attributes of nature—those “golden moments” which she strives to achieve without grand vistas or monumental scale. While attending CCA she was influenced by Richard Diebenkorn’s architecturally structured, atmospheric abstractions, and during those years Woods had her own abstract expressionist period, making large canvases exploring the “big” style of de Kooning and others. All these aesthetic precedents remain evident in varying degrees in her work today. In the end, though, “my aim is to create an intimate space at any scale.”
Woods move to smaller format panels and canvases upon coming to Boise has suited her. Immediacy has become an element central to her work. It is a quality that is enhanced not only by the diminutive scale which encourages us to absorb a scene at once as a piece, but by Woods’ use of photography to provocatively crop and concentrate a subject, lending her finished paintings a fresh unmediated demeanor. Then there is her device of situating the viewer in the front seat as if sharing a private space with the artist, which gave her streetscapes in her 2008 Through the Windshield series and last October’s Inside Looking Out exhibit a casual immediacy and intimacy not unlike those boudoir-with-open-window views that Pierre Bonnard delighted in painting. But the ambience here is much different. A darkening mood is increasingly evident in Woods’ art, a melancholia expressed in her palette and choice of subjects. The low gray skies, chilly fogs, and wet, descending nights are symptoms of a new emotional weight she acknowledges bringing to her work, revealing “the depth of a moment…its anticipation, reflection, isolation, longing and transcendence.”
Woods’ talent for capturing on canvas natural/seasonal light, Idaho’s atmospheric effects, and meteorological intrusions has always imparted the feel of out-in-the-elements plein-air painting. Indeed, her Beadwork series shown at Stewart Gallery last fall was perhaps the culmination of her increasing inclination to give the weather prominence of place. In these, what is normally the middle ground becomes the main event, rain-splattered windshields obscuring the view beyond and forcing our attention on the pluvial rivulets, beads and streams which capture and intermingle the natural and artificial light and intense reflected colors. The glass becomes a new canvas on which Woods can be an abstract expressionist again.
CHRISTOPHER R SCHNOOR