“I paint a lot from memory,” said artist Karen Barrenechea recently. “I don’t use a photo reference. It’s like when you try to remember a dream—you don’t remember everything, just the most important elements and the feeling you had.”
Her paintings evoke a dreamy feeling, partly because they balance representational depictions of the natural world—like fish, birds and flowers—with bright, deeply saturated colors and abstract shapes. This balance of representation and abstraction can be seen as a depiction of how memories—or dreams—are formed. Natural Abstractions, an exhibition of her work at the Generator, a community art space and gallery in Sparks, displays a diverse array of techniques, subject matters and styles. Some of the paintings are entirely abstract and others are recognizably representational, but most are a little of both, blending reality and imagination, dream and memory.
Barrenechea is a Nevadan originally from Winnemucca. She works as a commercial artist and is a regular contributing artist at Art Indeed! Sierra Memorial Abstract Art Gallery, but the show at the Generator is her first solo gallery exhibition. It represents a year’s worth of her work.
She works almost exclusively with oil paints and employs a variety of techniques: from drips to washes, fast marks to slow brush strokes, broad strokes to intricate details. The subject matters are likewise diverse. Two of the large anchors of the exhibition are “Koi at Play” and “Koi at Play 2,” impressionistic depictions of the fish at her home pond. But there are also paintings of clouds, outer space, and science fiction scenes with titles like “Space Station” and “Time Travel.”
“I like to be very versatile, depending on what I want to evoke,” she said. “I’m all over the place. I love to break the rules.”
Some are pure color exploration abstractions. “Sometimes I just want to paint purely for the enjoyment of painting and something like that will come out,” she said, describing her painting “I See You.”
“Friendly Devil” depicts a dust devil on the Black Rock Desert, and is right on the line between abstraction and representation. She’s been going to Burning Man since 2005, and the painting was inspired by those pilgrimages, but with its balance of abstraction and realism, and its vivid, saturated palette, it could also be concept art for a movie adaptation of Dune. In contrast, “Blue Butterfly” is such an accessible artwork, it almost looks like a kids’ book illustration of its titular subject matter.
The largest painting in the exhibition is “Humming Bird Home” a striking artwork that’s one of the more unusual pieces in the show. For the painting, Barrenechea employed more detailed, carefully rendered techniques than elsewhere in the exhibition, but she also evokes interest by intentionally breaking some of the unofficial rules of composition. For example, the painting depicts a realistic hummingbird right smack in the middle—often a compositional taboo, but most viewers’ eyes won’t get stuck there because there’s enough movement elsewhere in the painting.
“When I first painted that, I thought, why did I stick that right in the middle?” she said. “I know that’s supposed to be a no-no. But then I thought, hey, I’m supposed to be breaking the rules!”