The artful life

Christine Pinney Karkow

Christine Pinney Karkow combines photography and painting to make dark, glowing images like the one behind her.

Christine Pinney Karkow combines photography and painting to make dark, glowing images like the one behind her.

Is art supposed to be a reflection of life—or a refuge from it?

Christine Pinney Karkow’s photographic paintings and painterly photographs could go either way.

I’d seen a few examples of her work here and there, at Western Nevada Community College, at Bleulion Artspace. Her paintings—or wait, were they photos?—of blocky, unspectacular commercial buildings looked familiar and original at the same time.

It looked like Karkow had one foot planted in the branch of documentary photography where architecture is used to symbolize the people who design it and use it. The other foot, I imagined, would be paint-splattered. (She often puts strokes of paint or clear gel over the surfaces of photos, giving them a hand-touched look.)

I wondered if there was a lot more to it, if she had a “point” or a “shtick.” I tried to parse whether Karkow’s ink-jet prints of night-lit bank buildings were political or personal. Or maybe both. Or neither.

We found a time to meet, 8 p.m. on a Friday. Even as she was gearing up after a day of teaching for the start of her studio workday, Karkow had enough energy that it seemed she could start dancing. With her slim build, her way of moving while standing still, and her diagonal-striped, button-up shirt, maybe it would be a ballet—composed by the Partridge Family.

Karkow’s workspace, a rented warehouse in Sparks, is a lot like her dress, casual but assertively stylish. The high-ceilinged, windowless space is filled with clues of the particular moments of fashion she was born into and grew up in. Fake-gold-painted diamond shapes from the early 1960s decorate a stairway to a loft area and recur in her drawing studies. A collection of swag lamps (including translucent, faux-amber grapes she found on eBay) hang from bronze-colored chains. She says she was fascinated by this plastic loveliness as a kid.

Karkow didn’t proffer a statement or a shtick. She didn’t have a version of the “what it all means and why it’s so important” speech that artists usually feel obligated to recite. But her mission subtly presented itself. She takes ordinary things and moves them over one realm to make them into art. She says editing is a big part of her artistic process. She edits by choosing what to photograph as she travels around at night with her camera. Later, she edits images stored in her laptop and decides which ones to use, how she’ll narrow down her world into a few pictorial elements.

The digital photo of the bank entrance, lit blue-green late at night, is heavily black and not sharply focused. It’s kind of industrial, kind of ethereal. The concrete structure alludes to Karkow’s ‘60s and ‘70s aesthetic preferences, but the kitsch and sparkle from those eras are removed. The bank and the dark night are printed on 15 sheets of ink-jet paper and mounted to a board shaped like a stretched canvas. The image is spare but not simple—you could read a lot into it—but it’s really not calling out for explanation or theoretical bolstering either.

So, refuge or reflection? Political or personal? Karkow takes a middle road, acknowledging all those traditions without using any of them as soapbox from which to shout. Instead, she puts her energy into cultivating her own way of seeing the world.