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At Constellation Studios: Karen Kunc's 'Release/Reveal'
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At Constellation Studios: Karen Kunc's 'Release/Reveal'

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“Release/Reveal: Karen Kunc Works in Progress” is more than just an exhibition that illuminates the acclaimed printmaker's process of transforming black-and-white sketches into beautifully colored prints.

It is a return to art for Kunc, who retired from her position as Cather Professor of Art in the University of Nebraska School of Art, Art History & Design, and on Dec. 31, 2019, lost her husband, glass artist Kenny Walton, who died at age 72.

“I was even questioning -- because I had this big, personal transition, not being able to work for a year and having a huge, huge loss -- what do I have in me to start making art again? Can I make art again?,” Kunc said. “I'm pleased that yes, I can. It's a little bit different. It's affected by those changes ... That was something to direct myself and put myself back on track with making art, which has always been the way I can manage all my life stresses and heal myself, making art. I have to have it in my life.”

The art she made in her Constellation Studios, where the exhibition is on view through November, is a suite of nine prints, grouped in threes, that originated in drawings that, appropriately, are the first objects seen entering the gallery.

The drawings, based on theatrical curtains, are presented individually, then with tissue-paper variations pinned over the top of the initial work, demonstrating how Kunc envisions her prints before she begins to carve the woodblocks that will be used to create them.

“What I am trying to do with this installation of these drawings is to show the layering that I'm mentally thinking about before I start,” Kunc said. “Now, obviously, the print evolves, and it doesn't necessarily have all this information in there. But it's a way for me to kind of conceptualize about the layers ... At least it gives an idea of the thought process and the kind of analysis that's always necessary.”

Kunc then carves the drawing into a block of wood, or at least she tries to re-create it with a knife slicing into the wood.

“What’s always been interesting to me is I can do a lovely drawing, but when I carve wood, it can't translate everything that I can draw, and carving, I can't draw what I can carve," she said. “The two feed off of each other, but they have their independent pathways ...That intractable wood has its own character that starts asserting something to me as I'm carving. I kind of enjoy that struggle and honesty that it makes happen, because you have to be attuned to that material.”

The carved block is then inked -- Kunc has to select the colors she will use with forethought to the layering to come -- and run through the studio’s large press.

Then the block is recarved, adding more detail and reinked as Kunc works with the shapes and colors that will be on the final product, then printed again on the Japanese paper that Kunc purchases from an importer for use in her work.

That reduction woodcut process continues with multiple layers until Kunc decides that she’s finished -- “I've answered all the questions that are bugging me.”

The result of that process can be most telling seen in “Blue Cascade,” which takes the drawing of a large, flowing curtain, turns the center section of it multiple shades of blue, adds brownish red to the edges and, in the middle center, a circular pattern that is typical of Kunc’s work.

That combination of more organic, natural views, geometric patterns and hashed lines is the major step forward in the “Release/Reveal” prints -- a combination that is most vividly seen in the smaller prints, perhaps representing details from the curtain that look like plants, or arms reaching out.

It’s also visible on a wall of small prints that weren’t created for the show. Rather, they were works that Kunc either began, then set aside or made during workshops and finished. Those pieces incorporate imagery that she sketched from medieval books in the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institution along with geometric figures.

Together, the drawings, the three sets of three “curtain” prints, the wall of small works and an artist’s book provide insight into Kunc’s process and the variation in her work.

But they’re also superb examples of a master printmaker who, after decades, continues to search for fresh imagery and a renewed voice in the art that heals and sustains her.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com. On Twitter @KentWolgamott  

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Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott, the recipient of the 2018 Mayor’s Arts Award, has written about arts and entertainment for Lincoln newspapers since 1985, reviewing thousands of movies and concerts and hundreds of art exhibitions.

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