Art of Harlem: Karen Kaapcke

By: Dylan Rodgers

What constitutes a portrait?  Judging from the massive collection of portraiture throughout the history of artistic inquiry, a portrait is generally face-specific.  Whether a full body portrait or a bust, the subject's face and expression have almost always been the main focus.  And why not?  The face is the most recognizable, individual aspect of the human anima, right?

Karen Kaapcke, a New York bred artist/philosopher whose work has been featured in Poets & Artists Magazine and American Artist, may have tapped into the fundamental aspects of her subjects that reveal individual characters extending beyond the face.

"Lately, to me portraiture has very little to do with the outward trappings of traditional portraiture," explains Karen.  "[I] even began to wonder if I could paint someone's portrait just by painting their foot.  This way of looking at something invariably involves the subconscious aspect of a person."

With absolute attunement to the seemingly insignificant details, Karen has successfully pulled off many portraits depicting a subject's attitude, history, and everything else that constitutes "the self" by painting (and drawing) everything from a vantage point that greatly reduces the facial focus.  She even has a whole series of portraits of the backs of people's heads.  Surprisingly, staring at the back of someone's head is just as enthralling as staring at the front.  It's all in the details.

"When sticking to the traditional structure of portraiture, the work might fall short... due to a reliance on those very structures," Karen mentions.  "One might rely more on the pre-conceived notion of what the portrait ought to be than on a more pure kind of response to what the sitter has to offer."

Karen said that by "painting the bald heads, [she] became aware of a series of patterns in the forms that were unique to each person's skull.  It reminded [her] of how a dancer has a certain [unique] way of moving."

"There are these moments of our world,"  Karen continued to explain, "details-that somehow when they appear seem to contain it all, both to sum up an experience... while simultaneously never leaving its specificity as a detail."

In Karen's eyes a single detail can represent the unique and the universal.  Each minute shape is a sort of visual DNA, both specific and ambiguous, that holds the key to the problem of a perfect and objective representation.

"With the goal of being able to be objective but realizing that one can never be objective," philosophizes Karen, "[can] result in a radical kind of openness... one can leave a certain cliche-ridden, symbolic way of passing through the world behind, that part of seeing and thinking that is riddled with preconceptions-so that one can become open to the strangeness of the world."

Photos: Karen Kaapcke

For more information about Karen and to see her work, visit her website here.

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