Before I ever decided to work as an artist, I found myself studying geology as an undergrad at UCLA. As I looked through a microscope into a petrie dish holding a sample of earth, it dawned on me how much I love the earth. And that art would offer me the only vocation which would allow me the opportunity to intertwine and fully share my deepest thoughts and feelings about this human experience on planet earth. Philosophy, spirituality, gestural movement, words and sound: I realized that I needed to combine all these elements and more with the substance of the earth itself to express what I feel inside.
When I established my first studio I set out to discover my own personal language and way of working. One day I intuitively and methodically painted out all the nonessential elements in a wet unfinished painting in order to arrive at my core values at their most minimal and focused state. I was surprised to find that eventually I had eliminated every painted detail I had created, and was left with only a pale brown color on my canvas! To my mind the painting called for just one more element for resolution: I ran to my nearby potting shed and gathered up the biggest handful of earthy mulch that I could carry and returned to my painting. I threw the earthy mix over the entire surface of the wet painting! However crazy this action seemed - yet it was the very logical and natural birth of my personal painting process. I have never lost this keen sense of awareness that substance and gesture matter dearly to me . They are my primary tools for revealing meaning through the synergy of texture and light.
E y e o n I n y o A r t i s t s : K a r e n L i c h e r
By Chris Langley
The Inyo Register, May, 2017
Contemporary art creates with a myriad of forms, formats, materials, and amalgams. Collaborations of individual artists working in concert are rare. Art that is accessible to a lay audience is pleasing, engaging, and yet still mysterious in its straightforward intelligibility. To discover the work of Karen Nielsen Licher and Bruce Licher, a couple who follow their unique artist’s quests yet often also collaborate here in Bishop, is a distinct surprise and pleasure.
If you haven’t visited them at their Independent Project Press or Project Gallery on Willow Street, you need to take some personal time and do so. You won’t regret it. Whether painting, photography, the independent music scene, graphic arts, or many other unique practices, this couple are constantly amazing in both their startling expression of personal vision and also their creative response to the arid landscape in which they live.
Their story begins at UCLA where they met as art undergraduates. Karen studied painting, photography, sculpture, and printmaking, graduating with a BA in fine arts in 1981. Born in Los Angeles, Bruce also studied fine arts at UCLA. He then became a musician, artist, graphic designer, and letterpress printer. He met other experimental music-inclined students, and created his first “art record” during an ‘Independent Project” course with performance artist Chris Burden in early 1980. Together the Lichers explored, contributed to, and participated in the exciting southern California art scene until they moved to Sedona, Arizona in 1992.
In the 1980's Karen explored minimalism, abstraction, and gesture. Her bio states, “Through these explorations she discovered that the corporeal earth brought a powerful and meaningful dimension to her art. This aspect in her art has only grown since the couple moved to the Eastern Sierra aft‘er seventeen years in Northern Arizona. The strengthening, maturing, and confidence in her work was obvious in her exhibit entitled “The Voice of the Earth” at the Cerro Coso Art Gallery in Ridgecrest. It closed this Fall 2016 after an extended run. The exhibit was subtitled “A Conversation about Spirit, Matter and Time.”
Sitting quietly in The Independent Press location, Karen is calm. Yet a kind of internal elation grows in her voice as she speaks of her work with the earth. She recites the motto of her recent work: ”What would the earth say to us if we’re listening?” She continues, “This work explores the language of gesture and symbolism which I feel is the vocabulary of the earth.” Here exploring and working, often out in the Eastern Sierra landscape, Karen reflects, “This region is particularly compelling as it is one of the most geologically young and tectonically active areas in North America. Because of this my work evokes a sense of transcendent reality that is free of dogma.”
Karen also had an exhibit with another Bishop artist, photographer Joe Profita in 2015 at the Project Room. Karen comments about this show and portfolio of work, calling it an “Ongoing digital photography series of water in motion. This series began in 2005 as I found I needed to spend more time with my elderly mother. I looked for ways to achieve a painterly expression through the medium of digital photography. ” (Note: By the way, most of the portfolios of work mentioned here can be found at www.KarenNielsenLicher.com or at the Project Room website www.prejectroom.net/karen-nielsen-licher).
Karen states, “There is the inevitable polarization of the sacred and the exploitable which is something which needs to be transcended. There is the inherent connectedness of extreme points of view.” The artist speaks philosophically, attempting to illuminate her work with the earth by which she hopes to re-sanctify the soil, material and surface of the home planet. She says her work is informed by her connection with the substance (energy of nature) working with natural materials in an experimental manner.
Her process is very straightforward, revolutionary in its simplicity. “I collect earth, found materials and images from the landscape and bring them into a gallery setting, either as paintings on canvas, photographs, or materials in installations. I love working with these natural materials in an experimental manner, to see if I can find a new way to express our communality with all of nature. Since our human experience is so intrinsically dependent on all of these elements: the earth, the fire, the water and the air, it makes sense to me to perceive the planet we inhabit as a kindred spirit.”
“Gestures of Earth” is a series she actually began in 1980, but it remains creatively alive, inspired by working with the Owens Valley landscape. She calls the style with which she works: “ge¿stural abstraction.” The paintings are textural in nature and combine samples of earth and soil she has found in the Owens Valley landscape with paint on canvas. The effect is one of ideas of the earth, of the ever-changing landscapes around us, and its effect on our consciousness, thinking, and feeling. She says, “The light reflectivity of these works varies over the surface of the painting: the earthen, textured areas absorb more light than the glazed canvas areas.”
The paintings when gathered together or seen in conjunction with others of the series are informed by the colors of the actual land. In the Cerro Coso installation the desert lands were there and yet abstracted as perceptions and ideas about them. For me it was as if they were allowed to communicate their nature, their feelings, balanced with skeletal remains of bushes and plant. The land was now seen clearly and unimpeded, their nature more accessible in abstraction than perhaps when confronted outdoors. But then the understanding, new perceptions, and apprehension of the earth informs your next experience out in the landscape. You see better, clearer and the clarity allows you to see beneath earth forms.
The paints swirl, dance and lift from the surface. The soundscape created by Bruce and Karen together only brings in another sense working in parallel ways to support visual perception. But the paintings also speak of primordial and mythological tropes indicated by some of the titles. “Incarnation of the feminine force” is an earth force that echoes back to Greek and Roman goddesses now engaged in psychological archetypes. “in flight,” “Equilibrium,” and “The Beginning,” all carry psychological or philosophical concepts turned into tactile and visual realizations. They take on an ineffable, transformational nature that stimulates some kind of inner knowing that we all carry with us, but seldom resort to.
A mandala of signs resides in the center of this Ridgecrest installation. The words are both evocative of our arid lands and challenging to our deeper minds and to the future of the deserts Karen intuits. These verbal concepts circle by standing stolid and impassive. SACRED-EXPLOITABLE, PUBLIC-PRIVATE, FINITE-INFINITE, PROMISED-FORBIDDEN.
They also remind me of Karen’s adventuresome spirit, constantly exploring energy, the feminine, and landscape. Her mind is hungry and we skip from scalar waves to other provocative energy forms easily in our conversation.
Her works become more complex and yet accessible, complicated yet straightforward. In the period of the several interviews. Her passion burns blue and strong at times, and yet the spectator somehow is reassured in her confident hands, and fecund vision. With her husband often at her side, something very special is happening on Willow Street in Bishop.