Karen Kunc was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1952. She earned a BFA in 1975 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an MFA in 1977 at Ohio State University. In a 1998 essay in Grapheion, (published by the Central Europe Gallery and Publishing House, Czech Republic), David Acton, Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Worcester Art Museum described the artist as follows:
Karen Kunc is an artist of integrity, understanding, and delight. Her woodcuts are unusual among contemporary prints for their lush exuberance. At a time when printmaking is dominated by work that confronts the viewer with icy intellectuality or socio-political insolence, Kunc consistently provides pleasant, lyrical experiences. But her imagery is not superficial, and careful scrutiny is always rewarded with deeper appreciation and provocative ideas. The enthusiastic reception of Kunc’s prints throughout the United States and Europefrom Iceland, to Italy, to the Czech Republicpronounces their broad appeal, and the power of her voice to carry across cultural boundaries.
The artist works alone, and has developed her own distinctive manner of reductive printing from plywood blocks, stenciling and masking along the way. Along with a sensitivity for materials, the spirit of inquisitive experiment typifies work. The irregularity of the wood and the delicacy of the artist’s touch are always apparent. So in her remarkable colour sense, Kunc’s early prints acquired a Japanese look, in her preference for long-fibered mulberry bark papers, in her penchant for soft effects of tonal modulation, and in a vivid palette reminiscent of the saturated aniline colours of 19th-century nishiki-e. Although she briefly studied Japanese woodcuts, Kunc took what she wanted and quickly moved one. Indeed, her imagery derives not from other works of art, but from what she sees in everyday life and her feelings from those experiences.
In their technical innovations and their introspection, Kunc’s prints are characteristically American. During the 20th century, colour relief printmaking has had an eventful history in the United States. In the first years of the century, Arthur Wesley Dow used woodcut to explore composition and the modal capacity of hue. In the 1910s the Provincetown Printmakers, B.J.O. Nordfeldt and Blanche Lazzell among, them developed a novel method for producing colour prints from a single woodblock, for images ranging from Arts and Crafts-style landscape to Modernist Abstraction. The printmakers who revived colour woodcut in New York during the 1940s-including Louis Schanker, Adja Yunkers, Anne Ryan, and many others made larger prints with scores of colours, testing the physical and expressive limits of the process. Though their aims, imagery, and styles were diverse, these artists were all drawn to colour woodcut for its basic simplicity and its versatility. Each developed new ways of using the medium, and they all insisted on working alone. In the next American woodcut revival during the 1980s, a similar innovative soliloquy distinguished Kunc’s work.
Another American quality of Kunc’s activity is her reliance on intuition and chance. Like many descendants of the Abstract Expressionists, she relies on momentary inspiration and improvisation during the process of creation. The artist approaches the woodblock with only a simple black-and white sketch. At the press, she encourages an image to develop through responsive activities of carving and printing. While working, Kunc remains sensitive to the peculiarities of each plank of wood. She makes immediate decisions about form and colour, always remaining open to fortuitous mistakes. It may seem to her that each print autonomously evolves its own character. In truth, however, her unpremeditated decisions allow her own psyche to manifest itself in every image.
Kunc’s art is personal and introspective. Its poetry of colour and form reveal the artist’s view and experiences in her own voice. Landscape, weather, and the energy of nature were the perennial subjects of Kunc’s prints during the 1980s and early 1990s. She developed her own vocabulary of symbols to represent topographical elements. These meanders, whorls, and zigzags were placed together in excited compositions, like graceful weather maps. Kunc’s landscapes symbols often carry formal analogies to biology and geology. Cyclone spirals and lquid eddies remind the viewer of the sculpture of bones, visceral organs, or shell forms; trembling triangles and angular lighting flashes are reminiscent of crystalline minerals or glacial ice. Kunc’s recent prints reveal a deeper contemplation of symbology. Her pictograms of natural objects and phenomena gather in sensible ranks on the sheet, arrayed in elegant balance. Parallels and grids have replaced volutes and chevrons.
This organization reflects the logic of mapping, recording and systematic communication instead of natural chance. Rather than depict the awed perception of nature, these prints seem to represent the human compulsion to observe and organize. They evoke scientific analysis, the quest to understand the world, and communicate that understanding. Expressed with the artist’s delicate touch and exquisite colour sense, these images stand for the zenith of human ingenuity. They speak of fractile geometry as well as taxonomy, and magical places where mathematics meets poetry in the realm of cosmic order. There is an admirable consistency of technique and appearance throughout Kunc’s oeuvre of colour woodcuts. For 20 years she has remained dedicated to her process, through scores of editions, the circumspect evolution of imagery and capricious print world fashion. She has cleverly avoided inertia and repetition, and has developed a technical fluency to match her imagination. Now she begins to approach true mastery of her medium. It is exciting to see.
Other critics have also responded enthusiastically. Janet L. Farber places her within the context of the recent revival of interest in the woodcut: "A rising interest in the 1980s in the nature of personal or subjective expression in the Postmodern era contributed to the reinvigoration of the art of the woodcut, the oldest known print technique. With a more than passing regard for the historical Expressionism of the early twentieth century, artists such as Georg Baselitz in Germany, Mimmo Paladino in Italy, and Louisa Chase in the U.S. translated the gestures of emotion and spirit through the irregular and forceful marks made by carving and gouging the woodblock. An alternative direction in this medium was derived from the aesthetic of the Japanese ukiyo-e, those blockprints dating from the seventeenth century depicting images from daily life, legend, and theatre that are characterized by elegant qualities of line, design, and subtle aqueous color. . . . Kunc's work has increasingly explored the dualism of these two traditionsthe power and poetry, the dynamism and restby encouraging and then resolving their tensions."
The Tandem Press of the University of WisconsinMadison says, "Nebraska artist Karen Kunc, known as a printmaker's printmaker, creates large, multi-colored woodcuts which depict abstracted landscape and seascape elements. She has developed a unique style of woodblock printing that has enabled her to create a wide range of color effects from dense saturations to veil-like areas of thin shades." Other critics have noted that the intensity of the works are reminiscent of German Expressionist woodcuts but that the veils of color, sometimes four at a time, reflect the same control and richness found in Japanese prints."
One-person exhibitions: Atrium Gallery, St. Louis, MO; Jane Haslem Gallery & artline.com, Washington DC; Women's Studio Workshop, Rosendale, NY; Midland Center for the Arts, MI; Robert Else Gallery, California State University, Sacramento; Atrium Gallery, St. Louis MO; Felix Jenewein Gallery, Municipal Museum of Kutna Hora, Czech Republic; Hafnarborg Institute of Culture and Fine Art, Iceland; Galleri Umbra, Rekjavik, Iceland; Galleria Harmonia, Jyväskylä, Finland; Seigfred Gallery, Ohio University, Athens; Primary Object Gallery, San Antonio, TX; Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney; Gallery APA, Nagoya, Japan; Davidson Galleries, Seattle, WA; Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE; Jane Haslem Gallery, Washington DC; Albion College, Dickinson Print Gallery, MI; Atrium Gallery, St. Louis, MO; Cabrillo College Gallery, Aptos, CA; Illinois Wesleyan; University, Bloomington, IL; Minot State University, ND; Carlton College Art Gallery, Northfield, MN; ; Jan Cicero Gallery, Chicago, IL; Spiva Art Center, Joplin, MO; ; Jane Haslem Gallery, Washington, DC; University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh; Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, Racine, WI; ; University of Dallas, Irving, TX; Concordia College, Moorhead, MN; ; Wayne State College, NE; Jane Haslem Gallery, Washington, DC; Center for Contemporary ; Art, Kansas City, MO; WARM Gallery, Minneapolis, MN; U.S. Consulate, Krakow, Poland; U.S. Embassy, Warsaw, Poland; ; Sioux City Art Center, IA; University of Houston-Clear Lake, TX; Quincy College, IL; ; Millikin University, Decatur, IL; Illinois College, Jacksonville; Blackburn College, Carlinville, IL; ; Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln; ; Miriam Perlman, Inc., Chicago, IL; Columbus Museum of Art, OH
Selected Permanent Collections: Achenbach Foundation for Graphics, California Palace; of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco Fine Arts Museum; Allen Library, University of Washington, Seattle; Alvar Aalto Museum, Jyväskylä, Finland; Art Museum and Gallery of Reykjavik, Iceland; Atlanta College of Art, GA; Bradley University, Peoria, IL; Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY; Butler Museum of American Art, Youngstown, OH; Concordia College, Moorhead, MN; DePauw University, Greencastle, IN; Duxbury Art Complex Museum, MA; Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Embragel, Cabo Frio, Brazil; Felix Jenewein Galerie, Kutna Hora, Czech Republic; Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA; Hafnarborg Institute of Culture and Fine Art, Iceland; Hatcher Library, Special Collections, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Honolulu Academy of Art, HI; Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington; Instituto per La Cultura e L'arte, Catania, Italy; Inter-Kontakt Grafik Foundation, Prague; Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE; Library of Congress, Washington DC; Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts, Tokyo, Japan; Martin Museum of Art, Baylor University, Waco, TX; Minot State College, ND; Morris Museum, Morristown, NJ; Milwaukee Art Museum, WI; Mulvane Art Museum, Washburn University, Topeka, KS; Museum of Modern Art, NY; National Museum of American Art, Washington DC; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC; Nebraska State Art Collection; New Orleans Museum of Art, LA; New York Public Library, NY; Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, Logan; Oberlin College, OH; Oklahoma Arts Institute; Oklahoma State University, Stillwater ; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Portland Art Museum, OR; Pratt Graphics Center, NY; Silvermine Guild Art Galleries, New Canaan, CT; State of Ohio, State Office Building, Cleveland; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis MN; Victoria & Albert Museum, London England; Charles A. Waustum Museum of Fine Arts, Racine, WI; Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE; Sioux City Art Center, IA; Silvermine Guild Art Galleries, New Canaan, CT; Springfield Art Museum, MS; Stedoslovenska Galeria Banska Bystrica, Czechoslovakia; Sweet Briar College, VA; The College Board, New York; The Print Club, Philadelphia, PA; University of Alabama; University of Alberta, Canada; University of Arkansas; University of California, Davis; University of California, Santa Barbara; University of Dallas, TX; University of Delaware, Wilmington; University of Houston, Clear Lake; University of Michigan, Flint; University of Nebraska, Lincoln; University of Nebraska, Omaha; University of North Dakota, Grand Forks; University of Vermont; University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh; US Embassy, Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Virginia Commonwealth University; Wichita Falls Museum and Art Center, TX; Worcester Art Museum, MA; Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.