- United States
Karen Kitchel, United States
12 in. X 12 in. (dimensions for 1 square)
Denver Art Museum Collection: Funds from Contemporary Realism Group, 1998.60
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
Karen Kitchel was born in 1957 in Battle Creek, Michigan, and now resides in Los Angeles, California. She has lived and painted in the western United States for over twenty years. She remembers, as a child in Michigan, transplanting plants for her grandpa to earn money. “This was my experience not only with an intimate relationship to plants but also order.” In 1979, she moved to Los Angeles to attend Claremont Graduate University, where her commitment to hand-crafted painting and land-based imagery developed.
American Grasslands was Kitchel’s first series. She started painting it while living in Montana, where she found most of the grasses within two miles of her house. It took Kitchel almost four years to complete all of the 12 x 12 inch paintings. She explains that she doesn’t just fill a painting in from top to bottom, that “there are all kinds of decisions that I lost or they got away from me or they are the decisions I decided that I didn’t want to keep, so there are all sorts of paintings here that are buried.” Using oil paints and small brushes, Kitchel meticulously lays out many layers of paint with long, steady strokes. The intense focus and very small, controlled movements required for her work have given her arm pain in the past, and she now braces her elbow against a computer wrist pad to paint.
What Inspired It
For American Grasslands, Kitchel spent a lot of time looking carefully at different types of grasses, taking photos, and collecting samples. “I use my camera as a sketchbook. I take rolls and rolls of really bad photographs… I want just a really rough image to remind me of light direction and some botanical specifics,” she says. She included many types of grasses to reference the way that people relate to the landscape today. Rather than staring at one awe-inspiring vista, we often experience the land in a more scattered way—plants in the backyard, weeds between the sidewalk cracks, what we see when we glance out a car window. “The concept of the virgin landscape is a myth that goes back to the white settlement of this country,” says Kitchel. “I wanted to show the landscape as an inhabited place, and that it wasn’t a bad thing, it was just a true condition.”
Viewers sometimes wonder at first if these images are photographs, but each square is painted by hand. Kitchel seeks a balance in her precision—she wants her plants to be identifiable and also for her “hand” to be visible in her work. She gets a “chuckle” when her work is confused for photos because she feels she’s “enhancing and creating the wildest sort of fiction with these paintings.” She says, “I do want to encourage and seduce a point of view that will get you on your hands and knees looking at something like cheatgrass. I mean, a lot of the things I’m showing in my paintings, people spend a lot of money trying to kill.”
The series American Grasslands: Prairie, Pasture, Crop, and Lawn consists of 112 paintings, of which the DAM owns twenty. A series of Japanese woodcuts, Hokusai’s 100 Views of Mount Fuji, gave Kitchel the idea to do 100, but she found so many good subjects that it became 112.
Kitchel chose the square shape of the paintings to signify square-foot units. Dividing the land into squares references the social and economic structure of the West, the way the land is measured and owned and the way it looks.
Close-ups are often ignored parts of western landscapes. But, while this appears at first to be a series of super close-ups, note that some squares are closer-up than others, and in some squares it’s really hard to tell distance.
Kitchel carefully composed each panel, and she works out a lot of her choices in composition on site using a camera with a lens specifically designed for close focusing. “I can walk through a field or along a path with my camera and just compose and select as I go. It helps me frame and select things and see things that you will absolutely walk past five feet above the ground.”
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Ask students to pick an object for which they would like to do a visual study. Students can choose something from nature, like Karen Kitchel did, or they can choose some other object. Have them paint up to five separate images of the object that they choose, painting either different versions/types of the object (similar to how Kitchel painted multiple types of grasses), or paint the same object multiple times, from different angles (from the top, from the bottom, close up, far away, etc.).
- Close-ups are often ignored parts of western landscapes. Compare Kitchel’s work, which contains a number of close-up images, to another landscape on Creativity Resource, such as Wilson Hurley’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Ask students: How does the vast open landscape make you feel? How do Kitchel’s little portions of landscape make you feel? Which images are most familiar to you? How do you normally take in the landscape around you? Do you look at the little tiny details, or do you take in the whole scene at once? Have students pick out a detail in Hurley’s painting (or whichever other landscape you choose) to zoom in on. Then, have them paint or draw an image of what they think that detail would look like close up.
- Some of the grasses in this series are considered weeds. Is there something that you can think of that someone else might consider ugly or unslightly but that you would like to present as a beautiful object? What is it? Describe how you would make a creation that portrays this object as beautiful.