Posted on Sun, Dec. 12, 2004

An artist crosses over

Karen Von Felten, Suspensions
Triton Museum of Art, 1505 Warburton Ave., Santa Clara
Through Jan. 2, 2005

By Jack Fischer, San Jose Mercury News

Karen Von Felten knew, when she took a hiatus from her work as a graphic designer for local high-tech companies and moved to Mexico for 18 months, that a bridge was being crossed.

What she didn't know was how thoroughly that bridge would consume her in the coming years.

In the impressive ``Karen Von Felten, Suspensions,'' part of the Triton Museum of Art's program of New Work by California Artists, Von Felten explores bridges, both metaphoric and literal. Her debut solo show at a museum runs through Jan. 2.

Suspensions, of course, come in many types. Beyond the literal load-bearing ones, there is the suspension of a person's skepticism as he or she explores a full-time commitment to making art. In one way or another, that's a fundamental subject of all the 16 pieces in this show. It's clear that Von Felten, who has shown individual works from this suite in other venues, wanted this to be a virtuoso introduction to the public, demonstrating her mastery of materials and a broad range of invention from limited means.

What begins as a carefully considered study of foot bridges in a nature preserve near the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende eventually becomes an epiphany about creativity itself, as the artist deploys graphite, oil, monotype, etching, aquatint, assemblage and linoleum cuts to explore not just the subject but also the materials. If you saw, as I did in her studio, the photographs of the original bridges, the extent of that invention only becomes clearer.

Indeed, the narrow range of subject matter seems to have imposed a discipline that urged Von Felten on to ever more creativity, wringing from the bridges and surrounding terrain what almost seems all the ways it is possible to portray them, blending realism, expressionism, surrealism and an abstract expressionist interest in paint itself, sometimes in a single work.

Such works as the graphite on paper ``El Charco Footbridge'' (2001), a long vertical drawing, invite you into them vertiginously: The visual experience starts realistically in the foreground and grows more rough and expressionistic as your eyes move upward, until you reach what looks like a darkly roiled seascape breaking into sunlight at the horizon -- a precarious crossing, literally and metaphorically.

The illusionistic success of the black and white monotype ``Rope Crossing'' (2002) conveys the weight of tree trunk pilings, the real glint of light on water and on a grassy field at the far end of the bridge. Meanwhile, the deep blue fields and drooping wooden slats of ``Lost Bridge I'' (2001) and ``Lost Bridge II'' (2002) seem to channel Salvadore Dalí's melting watches.

It is in her color work that Von Felten most clearly reveals a skill for mimicry, intentional or not. ``The Crossing Reflection'' (2003) ostensibly depicts a bridge of old tires. But the unmodulated blue ``O''s of the reflection below, along with the fat orange ripples in the water, suggest the paint handling of East Coast landscape artist and erstwhile abstract expressionist Neil Welliver.

The Triton show is a pretty fair advertisement for an artist deserving of gallery representation, which Von Felten does not yet have (she sells her work out of her house).

So what might be next? Perhaps a better sense of the artist putting her nickel down. Both inventive and technically impressive, the works nonetheless sometimes seem more about the inspired manipulation of the source material than the artist telling us what's important to her -- rather like someone playing boogie woogie and Bach, but refusing to say which she prefers. It's one thing to show you can spin gold from dross, but another entirely to say what your heart would have you do with the gift.

But now, at least, it seems Von Felten will make the time to find out.

``It was a test,'' she said of the move to Mexico in the 1990s to see whether she would pursue her art. ``It was very possible in my mind to fail, and that would have put the issue to rest so I could get on with life.

``Fortunately it went well. Nothing ever went so right for me. It was like flying.''

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