©Karel Funk, Courtesy 303 Gallery, New York and Galerie Division, Montreal
Karel Funk, "Untitled #54," 2012
Karel Funk, "Untitled #54," 2012, acrylic on panel, 28.5” x 25"
There are moments when literature and art elucidate one another, sharing the same circle of light. I was given a moment like this recently, when thinking about the paintings of Karel Funk. In the 2004 American novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, the protagonist makes a beautiful, if pessimistic, claim: “In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence.” He then goes on to describe the spaces between us as “utterly vast.”
The subjects in Karel Funk’s paintings are certainly unknowable. We gaze upon them, examining the shadows under their eyes, their hairline, or a place that has endeared itself to Funk – the tiny space behind the ear. But we get nothing back. The people in Funk’s paintings avert their eyes, turn their heads, retreat into hoods.
Karel Funk in his studio
Funk has been painting realistic, hooded portraits for close to 15 years. He obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Manitoba before graduating in 2003 with his Master’s from Columbia University in New York. This June, the Winnipeg Art Gallery mounts a retrospective of his work. The reason, says curator Andrew Kear, is obvious. Funk has achieved tremendous success, and the gallery would like Winnipeggers to become better acquainted with his art. In the early days of Funk’s career, his paintings found favour with prominent American critics and collectors. His first solo show took place at New York’s 303 Gallery in 2004. Canada, however, didn’t take notice until 2007, when he showed at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Then major institutions like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada started to acquire his work. By then, his unique process, his contemporary urban focus, and his affinity for Renaissance portraiture had been well documented.
Funk cites New York as an early inspiration. Riding the subway and experiencing the close press of bodies afforded him a uniquely intimate vantage point. Funk, who now lives in Winnipeg, says he receives inspiration everywhere. “Urban voyeurism does happen in Winnipeg too, but taking a bus like the 66 Grant is not the same as taking the N-train.” His joke refers to the notoriously lumbering pace of his hometown’s transit system.
Collection of Craig and Lynn Jacobson © Karel Funk, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York
Karel Funk,"Untitled," 2002
Karel Funk,"Untitled," 2002, acrylic on panel, 18” x 14”
New York, of course, is also where Funk became familiar with the portraits of the Renaissance masters. He spent hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection, studying the expressive capacity of cloth and drapery, how they hang on the body, their shadow and light.
Funk’s chosen cloth is Gore-Tex. The slippery, shiny surfaces of winter jackets have become his vestments, and Funk takes pains to articulate each fold and crease. At times, he is more interested in the fabric than the person inside it. In Untitled #54, for example, Funk exaggerates each pucker and ridge until the material, a rich Prussian blue, becomes fantastically topographical. In fact, many of Funk’s hoods have an invented quality. This is why Funk insists he’s not a hyperrealist or a photorealist painter – he does not simply replicate what he sees and is not all that interested in reality.
“Not only is there potent psychological depth, but there is brute materiality and pure surface.”
– Andrew Kear
Conspicuously absent are any indicators of setting or environment. There are no frosty eyelashes, no clouds of frozen breath, no moisture beading up on the waterproof barriers. Funk uses a white background in order to minimize any possible narratives, placing his characters in an unreal, extrasensory location. His paintings seem to say “instead of tedious particulars, I give you pure and distilled mortal presence.”
Funk builds each painting by manipulating forms. While many painters keep their process shrouded in mystery, Funk is refreshingly open, even dismissive of the mystique that surrounds realistic painting. He stockpiles jackets he thinks might be challenging to paint. He works from photographs, taking hundreds, and often crumples the jackets before placing them on his model. He uses tape to hold creases in place, and will even put tissue paper inside the hoods for added dimension. What follows is months of slow and methodical labour. He layers acrylics and glazes, removing sections of paint with a palm sander before beginning the layering process again. It can take up to three months to complete one painting. By his count, he has completed only 76 paintings in his career.
Kear says that part of Funk’s appeal is the lure of realism. But beyond that, Kear notes, is the fact of each painting’s psychological tension. “Karel completely contradicts the claims of portraiture. His subjects have a particular identity, and yet we still see them as anonymous. Not only is there potent psychological depth, but there is brute materiality and pure surface.”
Testament to the power of Funk’s portraits is the variety of responses and readings of the work. After his first show, New York Times critic Roberta Smith noted the paintings’ tenderness. Jerry Saltz remarked on their shyness and shame. An Artforum article by Frances Richard noted the subject’s emotional detachment, and the fact that each is white, modestly handsome, completely average. The characters are their clothes, Richard wrote, “like emblems of a monastic order.”
As to be expected, hoods themselves feature large in discussions of Funk’s work. Hoods are symbolic of toughness and male posturing. In the public eye, they are often equated with maladjustment and delinquency. Hoods also play a role in racial tensions. In 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed while wearing a hoodie, and the garments were worn as a protest over handling of the case.
© Karel Funk, courtesy 303 Gallery
Karel Funk, "Untitled #65," 2014
Karel Funk, "Untitled #65," 2014, acrylic on panel, 30" x 36"
Funk is interested in other readings of his work, but remains steadfast in his primary aim. Slowness and quietude are important to him. Hoods are not laden with antagonistic cultural signifiers. Nor are they specifically male. Untitled #65, for example, depicts a woman in a red wool jacket. The hood that envelops her face is furry and soft. Light rests on her shoulders. When asked about emotional resonance, Funk says: “Tilting the head down does suggest a state of mind, and I am very conscious of body language. It is not tragic at all, but is relaxing, like a little sanctuary.”
As a concept, sanctuary perfectly describes the almost spiritual inwardness of Funk’s work. As viewers we are outside, gazing upon. And yet, we’re inside the hood too. Canadians know this feeling well. When braving extreme temperatures, we sink deep into ourselves, becoming remote, quiet, still. Inwardness is a survival tactic, but weather aside, it also provides rest and reprieve. Sometimes it’s good to be alone.
Funk is looking forward to seeing a good portion of his paintings together in one place. The Winnipeg Art Gallery has borrowed them from as far away as New York and San Francisco. An early career survey like this allows audiences to trace the artist’s trajectory. There are times when Funk focuses solely on the lavish, abstract design of the jackets, and times when he leaves hoods behind to paint skin tone and hair. “I recently looked at one of my 2010 paintings,” he says, “and I couldn’t believe how soft the light was. Now, the paintings seem more intense – darker, gothic.”
Collection of the Miraly Family © Karel Funk, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York and Galerie Division, Montreal
Karel Funk, "Untitled #74," 2015
Karel Funk, "Untitled #74," 2015, acrylic on panel, 30” x 44.5”
In recent work, the figure disappears. Untitled #74 depicts a black hood. It is twisted and knotted, its pink lining crevassed. It floats free from the body, solely material, anything but inert. Cloth becomes the body, or, in this case, it articulates complex female entanglements. It’s hard to say for sure, but this hood almost seems in a mood.
Here’s the thing about Funk’s paintings – they are still but never static. Each has innate authority, a quiet aura, an icy-hot charge. Lesser art makes references to meaning. Good art embodies it.