Carol Koutnik: Fantastic Garden

Carol Koutnik returns to the Main Gallery with her one-person show, Fantastic Garden. Carol was our 2005 Poster Artist and serves on the Art Center Board. She has been painting for over 50 years.


David Hill,  Adjunct Instructor of Art, Texas A&M University

Carol Koutnik’s show Fantastic Garden presents us with drawings, paintings, and constructions revolving around the cabbage. Foundational in the cuisine of her Polish and Czech heritage, cabbage is a food and a form Koutnik has known from childhood. As an adult, living internationally, she discovered the familiar ingredient of her home cooking appearing in new dishes. Koutnik respectfully uses the “humble vegetable” as a meditation on artistic exploration and creative growth.

Drawing is a basic skill to Koutnik just as the cabbage is a basic ingredient. Koutnik studies the contours of the cabbage form in her “patch” of nine drawings. Varying the pressure of the graphite to mingle full dark lines with delicate light traces, she describes both the dense weight of the vegetable and lacy frill of the leaves. All of Koutnik’s work is undeniably feminine, but it is not a self-conscious,overstated femininity. It is confident, secure, unaware of itself and inextricable from her work. Koutnik has stated her fascination with the “packed center of the head, and the structure of the armor-like exterior leaves.” The center ball is where the greatest concentration of growth occurs. Instinctively, Koutnik likens this to the mysterious heart of the creative process, where the magic happens, later to be revealed as the plant matures and opens. This delicate vitality is vulnerable, however, without the sturdy protection of the outer “armor-like” leaves. Creativity requires some defense as a complement to the generative.

If the drawings study structure,the six oil paintings reveal Koutnik’s raw fascination with the cabbage as a form. Koutnik manipulates the color in her source photographs making it clear these are not literal images. The paintings are not “paintings of cabbages” and much less symbols. As living things that remind her of nurturing, mystery, maturity,and fecundity the cabbage image is as much about the creative process as theact of painting them. Koutnik neatly merges subject and process. Interlocking color shapes, spread like jam, scraped like butter, along with tracts of wet on wet drags build the paintings. Her deft touch and enhanced colors combine into more than a picture of cabbages.

 Instead, she paints her experience of cabbages, the experience of curiosity and marvel. Undeniably attractive, the color choices permit us to vicariously experience Koutnik’s own delight. Smoldering oranges are pitted against refreshing cucumber greens in Les Choux Merveilleux. Glaring carnation pink sunlight in Fantasticke Zeli contrasts against backlit leaves that glow a luminous “Post-It Note” green. The colors disorient us for a moment, but, recovering from that disorientation, we have the chance to recognize the subject through fresh eyes, the way Koutnik sees them.

Artistic growth requires risks that can prey on an artist’s insecurities about success, competence, and acceptance. A patch of twelve “fortune tellers” are risks in themselves. They address the desire for certainty that creative risks will be worthwhile. Borrowing from a remembered childhood game to “predict the future”, Koutnik folded large sheets of paper according to instructions she found online. Covering the surfaces with motifs inspired by cabbage leaves, she draws a parallel. The interior of the fortune teller becomes fictional access to a future waiting to be revealed,like the heart of the cabbage’s vital center; like the unknown conclusion of a freshly started painting.

Finally, three oils and a graphite drawing depict the “three sisters” method of growing corn, squash, and beans. The group acknowledges the necessity of support, community, and interdependence,fundamental to artistic productivity. The ancient growing method uses corn, squash, and beans grown together for mutual benefit. The plants do not sacrifice their natures but exploit their differences to achieve more. Cornstalks and beans are both shaded by the broad leaves of the squash. The beans in turn find support on the stalks and as they grow bind the three together creating an alliance stronger for the unique qualities of each. There are obvious parallels to the cabbage paintings. The corn, squash, and beans point to a creative interior synergy. Koutnik also reminds us that practicing art isnot done alone. It requires the support of others who are growing too. We thrive when we combine our natural gifts and authentic selves in appreciation and respect, to create more than we could alone.