December 28, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Karen Schnepf’s artist profile, published in Her magazine in 2009 (now HerFamily magazine), carried the subtitle “Coloring Outside the Lines.” Much has changed in Schnepf’s life and artwork since then, but her credo is still the same. Whether beginning a fresh painting, designing her home, or playing with a grandchild, she believes in following an idea wherever it may lead rather than let conventional boundaries define the shape of her explorations. Color and curiosity are the joint impetus for her paintings; they are the verve and rhythm that bring her work to life.

Schnepf’s painting signature is an immediately recognizable style, with abstract compositions whose bright colors are emphasized by the artist’s unique, high-gloss finish. Colors assume shape by either consolidating into an area on the canvas or by lines suggesting a perimeter. These contours—whether a thick brush stroke or a quick, gestural dash—are somehow incomplete, interrupted. They have the same energy as Navajo spirit lines—the break prevents the work’s creative spirit from being trapped and thus stifled. Schnepf’s lines exclaim, meander, circle, and drip; they both allude and elude.

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Her new paintings literally and figuratively bump up the arrangement. In her latest series, Whispers, Secrets, Reality, paper collaged onto the canvas adds a layer of mystery to one or more areas of a painting. Finished with her three-step glossing process, the dimensionality is subtle and ambiguous, especially in view of Schnepf’s tendency to overlap paint. Before you can wonder what’s been covered up you have to decide if something has actually been covered up.

“The series is inspired by the complexity of relationships that come into our lives and how those relationships can change our road map,” says Schnepf.

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Further exploring the enticement of playing with space in another current series, Colors Layered, she arranges strata of heavy watercolor paper, cut, painted on one or both sides, and layered like shingles. Many of these soak up her vivid hues like sundrenched tiles, but Schnepf is so attuned to color that she celebrates its range even in a neutral palette. This sensitivity allows color to remain strong, even with the added focuses of texture 
and dimension.

“I particularly love the smooth, sophisticated, shiny surfaces of Karen’s pieces. It brings a vibrancy to the work.”
— Judy Boelts, collector

Whether painting or constructing, Schnepf follows her instincts; she adds, subtracts, shifts, leaves, comes back, questions, listens.

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“There is a passion in me that requires me to go to the next level,” she says, “to never settle for the ordinary, to experiment until I find the right combination of elements.” When she senses that her ideas have coalesced into an articulate and aesthetic expression, “Then I feel the satisfaction of completion, and the only thing that I add is my signature.” Change can be dramatic, as in Whispers, Secrets, Reality 5. (Works in a series are typically identified by number.) A patchwork ground has been quieted by a scrim of lavender; the most intense of those colors integrated into a central column. Black circles take on physicality; one can imagine they buzz in conversation, while black and white riffs ripple the surrounding space.

Coloring outside the lines, it seems, is an invitation to improvisation.

Karen Schnepf is represented by the Dundee Gallery. A solo exhibition of her work is planned there in April.

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