Sunday, September 23, 2012

Karen Kunc: The Cornucopian Printmaker

In the late 1970s, Karen Kunc came on the printmaking horizon like a blazing fireball, and she continues to blaze a trail in American printmaking. Since she earned her Masters degree from Ohio State University, eventually making her way back to teach in her native Nebraska at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Go Huskers!), she has helped assure a prominence to their already fine printmaking program.

What originally fascinated people with Kunc’s work, and continues to amaze them today,  is not only their enormity of scale, but the color, funk and complexity of her imagery visually connect her prints with other media – the upshot is Kunc’s works don’t necessarily look like prints. They cross over to something more painterly, and if someone weren’t informed about the methodology and look of prints, one could assume they were paintings. What is especially notable about this is that many artists have bridged into printmaking from their respective art fields and made wonderful prints like Helen Frankenthaler and Frank Stella. In this regard, Kunc helps advance the field and our colleagues on a par where prints are seen for the fantastic images they are, not being judged by elitist attitudes as a step-child to more 'serious' artistic endeavors.

Kunc’ painterly approach swings joyously to the other side of the art/print pendulum where her work breaks away from the flat, grained look of a traditional woodcut. There are references to landscape and what one would find living in Nebraska - the wide open ranges and amazing daily cumulus displays. But there is also an observance of Nature in its natural erosion and decay. Kunc' color selections don't necessarily call those natural observations to mind when we see her prints, but the formal elements are there. Still,  she is able to do something pretty special with a piece of wood and some carving tools. 

Additionally, she brings vibrant color to her work that is well above the register usually seen in this genre, and her ambitiously layered cornucopian feast makes us forget the labored journey she makes in creating these final images. Her production level is equally ambitious, including her eloquent handmade books and mixed media work. 
There is an organic quality to Kunc’s work, a joie de vivre. Some of her visual kinships are seen with painters like Georgia O’Keefe’s clouds, and the way Terry Winters shifts through his organic layers, but Kunc’ connections are more directly aligned to the late, great Elizabeth Murray. They share a fascination with color and surface, and if Kunc chose to work in 3D then their symbiotic sisterhood would be complete.

Here is an artist working at peak form, and it is certain students able to study and work with Kunc will only gain from the experience. Side note*I remember seeing Kunc years ago at one of the Drake Printmaking Symposium workshops in Des Moines. She came in and while she was getting prepped to work, she opened up this incredible, beautifully crafted case filled with custom made brayers from Europe. People’s jaws just dropped in awe. The tools’ craftsmanship was exquisite. While some say it’s the tools that make an artist work on a higher level, we all know that isn’t always true, but who among us wouldn’t love to have access to exceptional tools and paper with which to make our work? 

Kunc surely knows her craft and makes extraordinary prints. Our excitement is partly in anticipation of what she will next create, for the delight of seeing her work is like a savoring a fine dessert, or a bottle of Merlot. The work sings on different levels of satiation, and we are blessed to sample the abundance she shares with us. 

For more information about Kunc' work, go visit and see an excerpt from her own statement about her work below.

My work as an artist/printmaker addresses issues of the landscape and our natural surroundings as direct influences from my Nebraska heritage, my daily experiences and viewpoints in the landscape of the plains and from extensive travel, and as artistic interpretation and contemplation on larger issues of the eternal life struggle, of endurance and vulnerability, growth and destruction.

I am interested in the span of time it takes to wear away a canyon, build a mountain, the erosion forces that continually wash onto the plains, forming the earth, and, ultimately, shaping our world... from nature and science, spiritual and religious thought, art historical and modern icons, immigration narratives and native myths.

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