Friday, August 14, 2015

Sneak Peek: Karen Lynne Burmeister, Part II

Tuesday I shared a sneak preview of the upcoming exhibition of Karen Burmeister's dramatic collage works that will be on display at the Duluth Art Institute this fall. Art critic Ann Klefstad purportedly said Karen's work, "made my hair stand on end." Since I have only the highest regard for Ann on all things art related I felt compelled to pay special attention to Burmeister's art.

After sharing those initial pieces, I learned that Karen was an exceedingly special person who touched many lives. This is a continuation of the story behind the work. What follows are insights into her life and work as presented by her husband Loren Martell.

Karen owned several art books and was always bringing home more through inter-library loan. She admired and studied the masters, from Raphael to Matisse. She was intrigued by some of German Dada artist Hannah Hoch’s photomontages. She had a print of Hoch’s “On With the Party” on her studio wall. Some of her more contemporary influences included Jess Collins and David Hockney. She loved Collins’ collage, “The Chariot: Tarot VII.” She savored the rich tapestry of Hockney’s early photomontages. “My Mother, Bolton Abbey” hung in her studio. Despite the negative critiques of some of Hockney’s later decorative landscape paintings, she liked “Winter Tunnel with Snow,” and also had a print of it hanging in her studio.

Early Work
I can’t recall every influence that drew Karen into collage, but she was drawn to it almost overnight. The medium seemed to have been made for her, first of all because she loved to search for beautiful, interesting, evocative images. She was always perusing second-hand stores and garage sales for old magazines and books. Combining and arranging these images to create something entirely new quickly became her chosen way to express herself artistically.

These early works show how she was experimenting with the art form--with color, image placement and space. Compare, for example, the dense mosaic of image #3 to the sparse use of space in image #2. Her use of the human figure in these early works resonates with a theme that prevailed in much of her work--the interface of human beings with other forms of life, with the world. So intimate is this intermingling, boundaries sometimes blur. Human forms morph and merge with other life forms, throughout her art.

These early works test boundaries and feel experimental. They are filled with Karen’s exuberance from discovering a new medium that worked for her.  

Transitional Work
Three prevalent traits show an evolution of style in these works. One is the obvious reduction in physical size. Another is a more concentrated focus on composition. The smaller pieces seemed to coincide with a desire to create scenes more tightly knit and cohesive. Also, if you look closely, you can see an evolving creativity with space and form. I see these beautifully detailed scenes as setting the stage for the next, most-creative phase of Karen’s work.

Peak Work
This is when Karen was at the very peak of her creativity. I would describe her inventiveness of space and form during this period as brilliantly imaginative and deft. At times she was able to create a wonderful illusion of movement. The images seem to float on currents of air. Look at the row of bowls arcing across the base of image #6. Use of color is often striking--the reds and greens in image #11, for example. Bright, vivid colors are dominant in this artwork, yet a pocket of darkness lurks in the center. Children are juxtaposed with a more sinister figure--dark and hooded.

Elements of the human and natural world often compliment one another, at times merging throughout these compositions. They also often contrast, creating an effect that celebrates beauty, while simultaneously evoking the capricious, mysterious, dark and sometimes dangerous side of existence. A few of the last pieces were completed in early winter of ‘12/‘13, after Karen had been diagnosed, but was still strong. All these works are, without question, very fine art.

Post Peak
When we received the distressing news of Karen’s diagnosis, we both immediately thought of her art. We hoped immersion in what she loved would boost her strength. We hoped it would help cure her. Karen’s work changed as the winter of ‘12/‘13 progressed. These pieces were done late in the winter, when Karen was beginning to slip away. A cursory look at the work is all that’s required to see much of the fine control of detail she’d once possessed had been lost. The work focuses less on spatial relationships, and more on the elemental power of the images themselves. Reasons for this change are of course based solely on speculation, but the bottom line is that she was succumbing to a terrible disease. On top of increasing physical challenges, Karen’s condition obviously exerted physiological and emotional influence on her creative impulses. She often worked on several art pieces simultaneously; all the work from the winter of ‘12/‘13 were finished from pieces previously started. Some of the images--like the bay leaves strewn across the couch, in image #3--had been lying around in her studio for years.

The five works included in this category of the exhibit echo some of her early compositions, as though she was returning to her roots. It no longer achieves the same inspired, delicately ethereal flourishes of space and form as the art designated for this exhibition as Peak Work. It is not comparable in sheer artistry, but still has power. There is a clarity of composition, a still-vital spark of artistic passion. The last piece--image #5--stands out uniquely from anything else she ever did. I think of it as her last starburst of strong creative energy.


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The opening reception for Karen Burmeister's Life of Beauty show will be Thursday, September 10 at the DAI in the Depot. This blog only shares a portion of what you will see on display at that time. The event is free and open to the public.

Burmeister's work has been scanned by CPL Imaging, a premier service agency for art reproductions and preservation. They will likely be available for purchase at some point in time.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Hope I see you at the opening.

1 comment:

genie said...

I love collage! I will be at the opening!