Forming the Human
An Interview with Karel Funk
Introduction by Meeka Walsh
Karel Funk readily acknowledges his debt to Renaissance portrait painters; as a graduate student in New York he’d spent his Sunday mornings at the Met, studying the work of the masters. In the book accompanying “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini” at the Bode Museum, Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2011 and 2012, art historian Patricia Rubin had written that capturing the living essence of a subject in Renaissance portraiture didn’t require reproducing the individual in “ruthless detail.” In their glazed and mimetic perfection Karel Funk’s portraits are detail rich but resist identification with the exactitude of photorealism through the persistent evidence of the artist’s hand and the attendant small flaws the hand generates. In the interview that follows Funk names as his muse the combined elements of formal design and human touch. He works from the reams of photographs he has taken of models wearing the jackets he’s purchased, often after a day spent seeking the right red or a perfect shade of blue, but once he begins the paintings become almost landscape-like in their surfaces—extended, abstract and pushed or pulled into a terrain where the formal problems engage him fully. They remain, however, portraits and as figures unavoidably posit narrative possibilities, a momentum Funk seeks to minimize. They are about stillness, he says, and slowness, which do interrupt a narrative thrust. The transcendent or almost meditative quality the paintings have is a measure of his success in this slowing-down process. Layers of glazing, then acrylic paint, more glazing and the technique of removing portions of the surface with a palm sander; then reapplying another layer of glaze, having it dry and set and repeating it again. Funk has achieved a process where the eye reads the entrapment and accretion of time between each laying down by the brush, a process that establishes an amber-like stillness. The resulting paintings are quiet, slow and deliberate.
As portraits—a designation that inevitably adheres to them—they are antithetical. Where are the nominative characteristics that portraits typically have? Whether biographical or fictional, portraits reveal some portion of a face but Funk’s minimal busts offer us the verso only—a thwarted invitation to go around to the other side for more. Still, the paintings are complete. Nothing about them is in any way incidental and they call to mind the stately patience and quietude of 15th-century Netherland painter Hans Memling.
In using wood panel supports Karel Funk is aware of the connection to the history of Renaissance portrait painting—a form of homage that, for him is also practical. He explains he doesn’t like the bounce of stretched canvas or the weave he would have to cover with layers of gesso to eliminate. And given his technique of layering and sanding there would be the risk of working back into the gesso. With the panel he can sand the acrylic and remove any unwanted buildup of the accumulated surface debris: bubbles of paint, hair from the brushes, dust. The weight and solidity of the wood panel adds to the gravitas of the painting, again placing him on an historical continuum. His interest in surface detail is another link, and the folds and creases of the fabrics and drapery he studied at the Met were lessons well learned. While the fabrics today may not be velvet robes and silk brocade gowns, Funk has captured a Gore-Tex shimmer in his hooded jackets that can parallel the lush satin on an Ingres portrait from the early 19th century. Whatever the subject or occasion, the nuances of shadow and the use of light to emphasize folds and drape on a fabric surface are similar exercises in technique. Whether it’s Ingres’s Madame Antonia Devaucay de Nittis, 1807, and her embroidery-edged silk shawl or Karel Funk’s Untitled #53, 2012, a rich purple hood in scrunched windproof, waterproof sports fabric, these are similarly virtuoso achievements.
Karel Funk has talked about the intimacy of the gaze that brings him so near to the images he paints. It was physical proximity, the crowded subway that obliged a decorous response to the enforced closeness, a subway kind of intimacy that was about looking and looking away, about knowing only as much as you could see. Restraint then, but also a certain proximity to an engagement of observation. Funk’s reading is subtle and his painter’s eye would single out for attention an exposure only available through real intimacy and familiarity or the occasional closeness of a crowded space. He identifies it as “the little spot behind somebody’s ear. In the subway in New York I’ve seen that spot many times. It is especially intimate because you don’t see it unless you are really close to somebody.” You do see it in his painting Untitled # 55, 2012, a young woman with a ponytail, in partial profile so that her ear and cheekbone are visible. From just behind her ear and moving down her neck is that intimate spot. This is an unusual painting because the subject is female and one he had avoided for some time, wary of the history of the male gaze, introducing women in his work in 2008 and then occasionally since. Control in technique, in selecting and defining his subject, in mastering his medium and the issues of painting and representation, is at the forefront of his practice. He wanted it in the contentious issue of the gaze, as well: “as I did more and more portraits,” he said, “I felt my gaze was one that people understood as objective and non-sexual, so I built up the courage to introduce women into the work. I treat them the same way I deal with the male. It is a clear, objective, non-sexual gaze.”
The paintings contain their own quiet light source, their own radiance. The artist gives us the rich panels; the subjects remain opaque and the rest can only be guessed. Karel Funk has managed with his skill to limit narrative conjecture and leave us more than content with his prodigious surface accomplishments.