Essay by Dr. James Murphy - Original Director of the Atlantic Center for the Arts and Former Art History Professor at Florida State University 


Art is no longer a purely visual sensation that we record, a photograph of nature, as sophisticated as possible. On the contrary, it is a creation of our spirit which nature provokes. Instead of ‘working from vision, we search for the mysterious centre of thought’, as Gauguin said ... Art, rather than a copy, becomes the subjective transformation of nature. 

Maurice DenisFrom Gauguin and van Gogh to Neo-Classicism 1909


What I am after, above all, is expression… I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and my way of translating it.

Henri Matisse, Notes of a Painter 1908


Throughout history, visual artists, especially landscape painters, have used the natural world to express their views on everything from ecology to theology. In the nineteenth centuryThomas Colecelebrated the American landscape as the dwelling place of the Deity, but he also posed questions about preservation versusdevelopment. From the Hudson River School, through Impressionism, Luminism, Tonalism and Expressionism, artistic progress echoed our changing perception of nature as it is, and as we would like it to be.


The recent work of Karlene McConnell takes us on some new pathways, and revives some of the elemental tensions of the Modernist period. In her earlier series of landscape paintings, called In Between (2015-2018), McConnell engaged in “bringing the negative space forward …” blurring the line between foreground and background. The focus is on the evanescent moment when figure and ground become one, and all the spatial elements merge into a single flattened pattern. One painting in this group, entitled Walking with Matisse, gives us a clue to her source of inspiration, and an inkling of the pathwayto come. It also serves as a transition piece to the next chapter in her art.


The title of her most recent series, Perspective, refers to that historic revolution in pictorial space that occurred during the Renaissance. Around 1425, the Florentine architect Brunelleschicreated a painting with such a convincing illusion of depth on a flat surface that he amazed his fellow citizens. This system of measuring space through a network of orthogonal lines converging at a vanishing point on a horizon line, have become part of the vocabulary of Western culture, and have allowed artists since then to achieve a heightened sense of reality. Westill take these visual conventions for granted even when viewing works by modern masters. 


So, for example, the majority of paintings in McConnell’sPerspective series make allusions to three-dimensional space through central triangular form, sometimes curved or aslant, which suggests lines narrowing back towards that vanishing point. On the other hand, we recognize these organic forms instinctively as play on spatial conventionsa flat pattern on the painted surface that resists optical penetration. The rich chromatic harmonies, energetic brushwork (and crayon scribbles) amplify the expressive power of the overall planar organization.


The Modernist project from the very beginning was to establish a dynamic balance of depth versus surface, internal structure versus spontaneous process. We see it in Cezanne’s successive restructured views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, for instance, or Matisse’s early Fauve masterpiece, Open Window, Collioure(1905)which links the inside space with the world outside. In her own works McConnell builds a formal arrangement of pyramidal or arc-like forms linking the upper and lower parts of the composition, as if leading the eye upward and back.Meanwhile, the bright, expressive colors and gestural marksreinforce the sense of process.


There is an element of theme and variation in these works, as though the basic gestalt is taken for granted, and each experience is a moment of recognition. Like Josef Albers’s nested squares and Mark Rothko’floating rectangles, the real content was to be seen as (a.) interaction of color or (b.) transcendent spiritual energy, respectively, not solely the geometric shape which anchors our point of view. As Denis putit, “the subjective transformation of nature” is the true goal of the landscape artist. His hero Gauguin mirrored not the visible world, but the inner world of ideas and emotions: “themysterious centre of thought.”


Which brings us to the question: whose point of view? Why is alittle “ponder chair”included in some of the works? What of the potted flowers and tapestry? She explains she is bringing the human presence into the mix, and historically, landscape painters have always investigated the intersection of nature and culture. Thus, in Green Chair both the chair and the yellow potted flowers are part of the interior world of human habitation; but their colors are reflected in the sky and trees above, linkingthe inside with outside, the built with the natural environments. Sometimes both a chair and tapestry will appear, lending a dreamlike touch, like The Dream of Henri Rousseau, wherein a Victorian couch is magically transported to a lush tropical jungle.


McConnell, an avid hiker herself, uses her experiences of the real world to recreate the joy, excitement, and even the magic ofwalk in the woods. When she is “in the zone” she is exploring the interaction of vibrant colors, or “making simple marks that mimic nature and are pleasing to look at.” Harking back to Matisse, we hear a similar theme: “Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter's command to express his feelings.” This is about as close to a manifesto that we can imagine for the Wild Beasts (Les Fauves never wrote one) and it applies to McConnel as well. This kind of painter makes no effort to desaturate or blendbut allows pure, unmixed colors, even discordant ones, to ring out at maximum intensity. McConnell is a Neo-Fauve, walking with Matisse, forging a new trail forward while paying homage to the past,