Karen Vermeren is a Belgian artist whose in situ landscapes already caught our eyes some time ago. One rainy Sunday, we met up over tangerines and wine to discuss wanderlust, geology and endeavours of surpassing the usual borders of painting – – – and constructing new ones. We were very happy when Karen agreed to join us at Ponyhof.
Carrara, Delft, Gullfoss, Ithaka, Mingo Falls, Pech Merle, Snežna or Stone Mountain: these are some of the titles of Karen’s exhibitions, named after natural sights she visited or pictures she saw and rendered in her work.
The conscientious art lover may already have located some of these places: the caves of Pech Merle in southern France, for instance, feature in most art history textbooks as the venue where some of the earliest examples of painting were found (which, as a matter of fact, represented spotty ponies); whereas Carrara, in Tuscany, is famous for its marble quarries which provided among others Michelango with material for his ‘David’.
Others are better known as impressive natural sights, such as Snežna, a Slovenian cave whose permanently negative temperature has given rise to astonishing frozen waterfalls; or Stone Mountain, a geologically outstanding (sic) monadnock in Georgia, USA (even if this enthralling site also holds a sad connotation in American history as it used to be a place of Ku Klux Klan activities: in his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King proclaimed that “freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia”).
Karen, a keen traveller and recurrent laureate of art residencies, explains that she wants to capture the beauty and mystery of natural landscapes (a genre that seems somewhat undervalued in contemporary art), but also their physical structure and substance, the history and processes that shaped them. She conducts thorough geological research in order to understand how her subjects function and incorporates these insights into her artistic practice.
Karen was trained as a painter but uses walls and windows (or paper) rather than canvas as the support of her work, and turns to tape almost as frequently as to paint in her practice. However, the way she uses tape — to create depth, to portray the tectonic structure and underlying layers of the mountains — as well as her choice of colours and composition provides her work with a “painterly” impression. Which she maintains herself: “I was trained as a painter and I see myself as a painter.”
I asked Karen how she came to work this way, and she explained that after a course on murals, which she took during an Erasmus exchange in Finland, she started to find canvas too heavy and restrictive and focused on walls instead as she thought they offered her more freedom. She then began using tape in order to frame her murals, to create sharp borders and endings in the walls. Initially she removed the tape but later let it stay, and, over time, more and more tape found its way to her practice.
In this painting, representing a cross-section of Stone Mountain, the use of tape creates layers that are suggestive of tectonic plates, while the colours – pinks and reds growing more intense downward the mountain, conveying increasing temperature and magma movements.
Furthermore, many of her paintings are in situ projects including references to the exhibition space, hereby inviting the audience to take notice of the venue and their general surrounding. Her choice of landscape is never treated at random, but always has a special connection with the exhibition space. Walking around one of her shows, I noticed how the works changed depending on my position, and really liked the way that Karen again tests the usual border between work and exhibition space by immersing latter into former.
Karen mentions Cézanne and Monet as references, but also Per Kirkeby (don’t miss the Bozar retrospective), who was a geologist as well as a painter; Robert Smithson, the earthworks artist; Katarina Grosse, for her use of colour and light as well as crossing the borders of the frame, exploring space and a liking of corners.
See more of Karen’s work at our website.
—Aleksandra Eriksson Pogorzelska—