tumultuous atmospheric spaces
A Conversation with Carol Browning and Karen Roehl
OL: How did the two of you meet and set up space together?
Carol: Karen and I met while attending the University of Colorado Denver where we were often in the same painting classes. We shared our first studio space in the East Ends Arts District in Aurora, CO. After a year we moved to RiNo, an emerging contemporary arts district in Denver.
Karen: Another classmate, Theresa Anderson and myself teamed up to look for a studio together. We found a wonderfully large and inexpensive unit in Aurora (in the developing East End Arts District) which was way more space than we needed, so we invited Carol to join us. The three of us turned in to a great partnership and virtually continued our art education together as we supported each other’s work with ongoing critiques, shared inspirations and information about the art world at large that we each brought to the table regularly. Eventually, Theresa found another opportunity and Carol and I found the Dry Ice Factory.
OL: As similar as your interests are, your individual styles are strikingly distinct — I find a stillness, a meditative space in Carol’s pictures, like Diebenkorn’s maps-that-are-the-territory, a self-consciousness two-dimensionality that can unexpectedly shift into fullbodied flower. Carol, I wonder if you could speak to the creation of these smooth, overlapping shapes — how is the texture of this near-blur created? What sort of paint do you use and how do you apply it?
Carol: John, you have a keen sense of observation. I have always admired the work of Diebenkorn who was a part of the San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism. Their style differs from the NY school in that they are more connected to their environment and some artists’ work contains figurative elements. My work begins with many layers of active mark making and a multitude of colors. The creation of the smooth spaces comes from adding layers of water-based paint, oil bar, and ink then wiping them away. The more I cover up with layers of paint, the more I reveal new discoveries in the process.
Karen: Diebenkorn is a strong influence for both Carol and I, although Carol is more of a colorist than I am and relates more to the Ab Ex artists of the West Coast. It’s an interesting read that you have on Carol’s work. I would say that you’ve picked up on a key element of her personality: serenity. I feel like there is a grounding contentment in Carol and a strong undercurrent of discipline for a positive outlook on life. In other words, I think Carol sees it as within her (and each our own) power to create her own world, good or bad, which is based on personal choices and actions we each make. Making the requisite series of ‘good’ decisions to achieve that aim requires all sorts of honed psychological and spiritual skills. I think Carol over her lifetime has devoted much of her energies to developing these skills, which I think can only be achieved by someone who is capable of keen observation, which in turn require personal traits of patience and compassion.
Re the shapes in Carol’s work, some of her past paintings are full of distinct shapes which I think partly reflect her sense of self-discipline. But also she has a background in interior design and her father was an architect and so the science of dividing up space, as in structures, has been a life-long appeal for her and continues to exert an influence on her paintings.
OL: Do you critique one another’s work? Your styles share enough in common that I wonder if you don’t think of your shared working time as a sort of collaboration?
Carol: Karen and I discuss and critique each other’s work. We share resources from other artists and books that inspire us which often create a fresh new energy in the studio. I see our shared ideas and resources as a collaboration but our art represents how we each interpret the information individually.
OL: Karen, your own work is full of contrast and struggle — a storm in the wilderness, a war in heaven; your palate is full of bloodreds, dirtbrowns, and erasure-whites, but I’m most taken by your striking, almost calligraphic use of back; sometimes the black seems to separate and define the constituent zones of the composition, sometimes it intrudes across them or frenetically agitates them. I wonder if you could speak a little about your own compositional process: how do you start a picture, when do you break out the black, when do you feel as though something is finished?
Karen: Luckily in my case, art literally extended it’s hand to me as a conduit to my own salvation. (How’s THAT for drama!?) But it’s true. My reconstruction after my personal Trauma began after I spent a while living in my reaction to this event by literally wandering around numb and in a daze. The world just didn’t seem real to me. I seemed to be floating a few inches above it and invisible to all. I remember my bewilderment at how the world could continue on course, how people could continue to go about their daily business, while my world had been so violently upended. I was like a scoop of ice cream in an upturned cone, lying splattered face down on a hot sidewalk, melting into the cracks, while everyone just stepped over me. Painting in a non-objective style afforded me a kind of meditative, calming place to be; a place with no real rights or wrongs in it, no real up or down. It was my own little world, where only ‘right’ things happened, which led to a lot of contemplation about what right/wrong was. Again, another contribution to the visual contrasts in my paintings, thinking about concepts and their opposites.
Another important and therapeutic lesson I learned from painting was about ‘letting go’, painting over areas in a piece that I might have loved at first (which often happens in my process, some of my first marks are my most adored), but which no longer worked in the painting as a whole, as it evolved. So, I let go by painting new marks over old ones and I saw that this led to a complexity in visual and tactile textures that really excited me. As the layers of paint built up over one another, vestiges of the covered layers were still present in various little bumps and gutters created by brush strokes, cracking, and globs of paint.
I have also always been so impressed by the black and white images of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. They are so simple and yet so dramatic. I appreciate them as individual entities and compositions, but also find myself examining them for their details, more so than I think I do in paintings with a lot of color. It’s as if color does all the work for the viewer. It more fully satisfies the senses. But without color, I feel sort of invited to do some of the work myself to satisfy my appetite for fully-satiated senses. In this way, considering a monochromatic or limited palette piece becomes more interactive and therefore a more satisfying experience for me.
Carol: What draws me to Karen’s work is the intention with which she paints. Her marks are bold, forming rocky landscapes or tumultuous atmospheric spaces that invite the viewer to explore their complexity. She is often dancing to her music with headphones on while she paints. The vibrancy that is so apparent in her work is an extension of her passion for art and life.
OL: You both paint on especially large canvases and you both frequently show together — how do you feel the pictures wind up playing against each other in a public gallery space? What sort of feedback have the shows generated from your viewers?
Carol: The large canvas format adds an exciting dimension to my work. At times I feel as if I can literally become one with the painting. Karen’s and my work are very compatible especially showing together in a gallery. Karen’s style is more monochromatic with blacks and powerful gestural marks. My artwork lends itself to more color and light and at times hints of a landscape. Our work together shows how the abstract style can share similarities yet have very different results.
Karen: Scale is an important element for me. (It’s also a mark of the New York School Ab Ex painters in that when they were painting during those war years, there was very little budget for art and therefore not many patrons buying the work. So the artists no longer felt constrained to produce pieces in sizes that could hang over sofas). Painting large is a very interesting experience, because while you’re painting you’re focused on a small part of the whole painting, most of the rest of which you can’t really see when you’re up that close. The distance I can allow myself to be from the canvas, is as long as my arm will allow me to reach with a brush. So it’s similar to being an ant on an elephant’s butt, and again, speaking philosophically, we all see the world according to our own points of relevance. What I see on the butt is completely different than what an ant that lives on an elephant’s ear, or nostril, or toenail sees. Yet we all have in common the living thing that supports us. Painting large then becomes a bit of an exercise in trying to keep in mind multiple perspectives while only being able to experience one small part at a time. It’s very Gestalt.
Reactions to us showing together has been mostly positive (which I expect due to people wanting to be supportive). So we’ve been told our paintings flow well together for their similarity. But I’ve also been told that it’s confusing to tell them apart, which is a little frustrating for some viewers who want to know who’s is who’s and can’t quite tell.
OL: You both have an obvious mastery of art history. Do you sometimes begin paintings with the idea that you’re going to gesture toward a previous work (as in Karen’s Big 3, which brings waterlilies to mind, or Carol’s evocation of Bonnard’s flowers) or are these sometimes-references happy accidents along the way?
Carol: I am always looking at artists past and present to study what makes their works successful. At times I begin a painting with an artist or image in mind but my best results are when I don’t put any restrictions on myself, let it all go and allow the painting to develop on it’s own. Happy accidents occur frequently and the important thing for me to do is to be aware of them.
Karen: I actually do not feel very well informed on art history. I was thrilled to take those courses in school, but the subject is so huge! I feel like I’ve tended to immerse, and thereby isolate myself in a certain genre, the New York School Ab Ex period of the 40s, and as a result I’m no longer well-acquainted with any other (and even my knowledge of my genre of choice is pretty limited). So I would say any references to those masters are happy accidents for me : ) I can definitely see the Water Lilies reference (and am very pleased with that!) but I did not start out looking at Monets or even with the intention to express water. Yet, in the end, I saw a water scene as well, but only after the painting was done.
When I begin my paintings, I try not to have much of anything in mind other than what colors I want to use. The process is really about having a conversation with the canvas (cliche perhaps, but true). I begin by just making an intuitive, usually large mark on the canvas, almost always with black ink. This begins a dialogue that I participate in by making a responsive mark to the first one, using a second color of paint. It all unfolds very fast as I try to take into consideration edges, contrasts, interesting shapes, tones, texture, brush strokes, the list goes on and on. It sort of happens like thinking, the kind of thinking that doesn’t happen word by word (mark by mark), but rather by having a sense or urge for something that in turn causes us to act accordingly — it’s a very individual, interior, even sub-surface thing, which is sometimes deeply satisfying and other times very isolating.
OL: Lastly, I’d like to ask you about one another’s work looking forward. What directions to you each see the other taking in the future? What would most surprise you in the other’s work?
Carol: Karen has an interest in physics so it would not surprise me to see her collaborate with another artist who is science based. It would surprise me to see Karen do very small, colorful work, as I know how much she enjoys painting on a large scale and keeping her color palate to a minimum. Whatever direction she chooses I know it will have a successful outcome. Karen always puts her whole heart into creating her art.
Karen: Looking forward to further explorations of world and self in it. Not to be obviously understated, but world is a very big place and full of fascinating small parts. I’ll never gain full access to even a speck of it, which means I’ll never be at a loss for material for my self-imposed assignment to investigate parts and processes. I guess as I age in it, I want to recover the curious and investigative energies of a toddler. I want to clear away what I “know” and be open to the possibilities of a blank slate.
Carol Browning was born in Colorado and graduated with a BFA from the University of Colorado Denver. She currently has a studio in RiNo, an emerging contemporary arts district in Denver. Browning’s work is collected locally and nationally. She is represented by Denver Art Company, Walker Fine Art and shows her work at Ice Cube Gallery in Denver. She has an upcoming show in October 2011 at Ice Cube Gallery.
Originally from Canada, (Montreal, Quebec) Karen Roehl currently lives in one of Denver’s many beautiful older neighborhoods. Both her daughters live in the metro area as well. She has been a professional graphic designer for 30 years, which has blended nicely to form a hybrid career in the arts. Roehl has an upcoming show this July in the up-and-coming Ice Cube Gallery at the Dry Ice Factory (located in the vibrant RiNo Arts District) where Roehl and Carol Browning maintain their studio.
For more of Karen and Carol’s work, visit: http://greymatters.mosaicglobe.com/
Artists and artwork curated by Katie Caron; interview conducted by Katie Caron and John Cotter