In 1863, Charles Baudelaire wrote “Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne” or “The Painter of Modern Life.” This was a critical essay that essentially brought the reader from the mentality of the tradition of academic painting and the Academy and as we read it in hindsight, was a transition into a way of looking at art for its own sake. He stated that “modernity” required “above all a man of the world to fulfill. He has every-where sought after the fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day life, the distinguishing character of that quality which, with the reader’s kind permission, we have called ‘modernity’. Often weird, violent and excessive, he has contrived to concentrate in his drawings the acrid or heady bouquet of the wine of life.” If we are to seek for such a representation of “modernity” of Salt Lake City, that which captures its “fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day life,” we will find it represented in the art of Karen Horne, painter of Salt Lake City.
When one enters the spaces of which Horne’s show “Night and Day: Karen Horne paints the changing light of Salt Lake City” at the Gallery at Library Square, in 35-40 paintings, an immediate response from a resident of Salt Lake City might be astonishing familiarity and synergy. The Horne family including Alice Merrill, Karen’s great grandmother, has long resided in Utah. Karen Horne was born in New York City. Her mother, Phyllis, studied fashion illustration and couture design and went on to be a noted Utah painter, and her father studied at Cornell Medical School and the family would move to California where he would attend his residency and then to Bountiful, Utah, where he would practice. Although Karen Horne has spent most of her colorful, artistic life away from Utah, she came back to Utah permanently after she formally dated now husband Michael in Manhattan in 1994 where on Madison Avenue he was director of a print gallery and Karen Horne had been working at the Frick Collection for five years. They returned to Salt Lake City in 1996 to live in Sugar House where Karen Horne would continue her practice of doing what she had been in Manhattan, which was “painting plein air in the parks and working on street scenes,” what one will essentially find in these candid and lucid glimpses of Salt Lake City life at Library Square.
Horne had studied abroad in 1984 in Florence, Rome, and Venice and she says “I think my summer living in Florence and visiting Rome, Venice and other Italians cities sold me on the “piazza”. I loved seeing the street life in Roman piazze, and enjoying the spectacle of Italians doing their early morning marketing in open air fruit and fish markets, then their evening promenade, and later enjoying al fresco dining. It seemed that their cities were designed to encouraged gathering and mingling. Many public spaces! A constant parade!” This early encounter with Italian “modernity” would be a preparation for the canvases that would come out of Manhattan, and then the work that would evolve in Salt Lake City and what we see today in this current show to compliment the 2014 Utah Arts Festival.
A marvelous introduction to this is “Gallivan Skaters,” 30×30, oil. Horne calls herself a “Contemporary Impressionist” and this is justified as she is able to capture the mood of the moment using color, as she understands it, to respond to changing conditions, namely the infinite phenomena of light. In “Gallivan Skaters,” although the viewer might not correlate bright fuchsia in the painting to night time skating, in reality, so much of what is the essence of the experience of skating at night on ice is the reflection of the bright lights above, whatever it might be; electric blue, neon green, fluorescent yellow, fuchsia, and a combination of these, as in the painting we see a dominance of fuchsia, but there is also vermillion red, turquoise blue, other tonalities of pink, and even the icy glow of white as actual shadow in the night, and it is these exciting lucid colors that give energy to this particular moment, give presence to this experience of these skaters on this night and this moment unlike any other as the change of light is infinite and might never be repeated.
This painting, to some viewers, might give more of a semblance of reality of the very being of skating at Gallivan Plaza, than actually being there, when one is in preoccupied “Where have the children skated off to? Where are her shoes? Has Michael fallen? Is everyone together? Oh, so, so cold, but so lovely, Is it time to leave? I must text Alex.” Karen Horne is the eyes that see and the brush that looks giving full reality to the situation as well as mood and spirit and captures all of these aspects in pure color as one might not experience them one’s self given all of the time one could desire.
Says Horne “Growing up, we were always making something, and encouraged to create as well. So we were never short of creative materials; clay, watercolor, drawing supplies, fabric, felt, etc. The first story I heard of my imaginative and artistic leanings was recounted by my Aunt who visited us in New York City. She said that as a young toddler, I showed her what I called, ‘my birds.’ In the closet I’d arranged my mother’s high heels with various colored stockings. These were ‘my Birds.’ My father was always saying ‘Karen sees things nobody else sees.’ As I go about the day, I’m always craning my head, on the lookout for compositions, color juxtapositions etc. I do respond very directly to color and light effects, and sometimes feel a little spacey and removed from mundane life because I’m always visualizing paintings.”
Horne continues, “In my teenage years, I was very involved in math and science. Somehow spatial relations came easily to me, and I loved the abstract quality of equations. I was on the math team at Skyline. But there were always artistic influences around me. I also loved writing essays and poetry. There were medical doctors in our family, but were cultured and not just science nerds. They all loved and collected art as well.”
The seminal transition happened for Horne as she began attending college. Although granted a full-ride scholarship for the University of Utah, the prospect of Pre-Med at Yale seemed more interesting. She says “Although I started Yale with satisfying my Pre-Med courses, lab work just felt alien. I guess I loved the abstraction of math and science more than the reality of donning of white coat and working with beakers.” Further, “It was amazing how I had the sense of finding my tribe once I started painting and sculpture classes. I connected both with fellow students, and with masters from the past. These subjects suddenly felt more compelling. I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and my mind was blown.”
As much as Horne connected to the old masters, it was color that would be her primary interest and driving motivational force. In my intensive [Joseph] Albers color course, I had to collect paint chips and magazine pages to do collage piece I remember my floor being covered with colored paper one semester, a sea of value and color shifts. This course was so valuable in helping me refine my color sensitivity,” recollects Horne.
This passion for color combined with what Horne calls a “More gutsy, gestural and modern impressionism, but still based on observation of the natural that one would just interpret more boldly,” can be observed in “Evening at the Rose Wagner,” 12×24, oil. Not different to the scene at Gallivan Plaza, the impression of the moment can be observed. Yes, it may be only a moment in time, but it is a studied moment in time, capturing the color as the light affects the myriad components of the entirety in a manner that is closer to reality, as is authentic to the natural, and although the individual may have an opportunity to view the scene for 15 minutes, an observation such as this might never be gleaned, as one is worried “What about this traffic? Are we ever going to find a parking place? Do you have the tickets? Oh my hair! Are you sure this dress looks all right? Oh I cannot wait to see the new piece.” Neither the eye nor the mind is fixated on the present. This is where the beauty and magic of the painting of Karen Horne and the “modernity” of the painter of Salt Lake City steps in and captures the life that most are experiencing but are not really seeing, are not looking. This is the life that will be astonishingly familiar as one enters the Gallery at Library Square.
The triptych of three paintings that each have as their subject Library Square facing the City County Building at the height of the Utah Arts Festival excitement are “Rainbow of T-Shirts at the Utah Arts Festival” 36×24 oil, “Late Afternoon at the Utah Arts Festival” 36×24, oil, and “Evening at the Utah Arts Festival” 36×24, oil. These three help explicate further “the beauty and magic of the painting of Karen Horne and the ‘modernity’ of the painter of Salt Lake City.” The subject of the Arts Festival has been one of fascination for Horne, who sees it like the piazze of Italy, and a gathering place and time for all walks of life in Salt Lake City. It is no coincidence that her show “Night and Day” will be featured along with the festival and representative of its essence of “fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day life” in Salt Lake City and demonstrates Horne’s abilities as a Contemporary Impressionist and The “Painter of Salt Lake City.”
Like the “Gallivan” and the “Rose Wagner,” each of the triptych are but glimpses of a moment at the festival, and like the “Gallivan,” the “Rose Wagner,” and all of the paintings that are on display, these capture the presence and the present of that moment in color responding to myriad phenomena of light in that brief impression of fleeting time, never to be repeated, and like before, offer more of a sense of totality of truth to these elements to the viewer, than the festival-goer in any of these scenes, given any given duration of time, without the presence of mind to see and to look, but thinking, “What shall we have to drink? Where was that booth with the pottery? Where’s John? What a lovely quilt! Oh my, it’s so hot! How much time do we have? I’m getting worn out.”
Instead of all of this distraction, Horne has her artistic eye and color palette focused on the realities and conditions of an early afternoon painting when the colors are fresh, cool, inviting, the greens are minty and cool, alive, vibrant, the building and canapés are blue, as are most of the figures; the full light of overhead sun has not hit them directly. The mood, accordingly, is one of welcoming and energizing readiness for the day ahead. Then, late afternoon hits, midday has past, the shadows are long, the colors are lucid in this “golden hour” when the red is vermillion and the whites seem to glow, the blacks have a liveliness, and the patchwork of color is the throng of people at the day’s climax. A night scene shows fewer people and with less detail but with more lucid color, neon yellows and greens, and white penetrating the black that illuminates the scene and creating nightlife and an excitement of “modernity” to this canvas, just as light articulates the color that is studied by the vision of Horne in every canvas, to find that essence of “modernity,” the infinite present and truthful immediacy, as the artist must see and must look and we, those who know and will recognize, find ourselves face to face with the genuine reality of our own city, in these many paintings of Salt Lake City’s modern life.