Karen Garrett Biography

Karen Garrett is most frequently lauded for revolutionizing the post-modern sculpture material movement. She is widely credited for expanding its original premise beyond just the exploration of "modern" materials to the groundbreaking use of cardboard and resin in monumental figurative sculpture. However, Garrett's contribution extends well beyond these boundaries and even the field of sculpture: Her achievements have influenced contemporary art in general. Garrett's practice of sculpting cardboard has led to the development of complex, multipart sculptures of dramatic beauty. Her work places her in the leadership role of moving cardboard sculpture out of the confines of small two-dimensional objects into the realm of large-scale contemporary sculpture. In fact, Garrett deserves credit for establishing the cardboard sculpture form as an accepted vehicle for exterior installation art, beginning in the late twentieth century and continuing today.

A prodigiously prolific artist whose work balances content with an investigation of cardboard's properties of translucency and transparency, Garrett began working with cardboard at a time when reverence for the medium and for its use as a permanent sculpture material was non-existent. A graduate of fashion design and sculpture at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1980s, by 1990 she had become captivated by cardboard as a monumental sculpture medium. She enrolled in the University of Houston's graduate sculpture program at the famed Lawndale sculpture studio founded by James Surls...the only female enrolled.  After receiving a MFA degree in sculpture, Garrett was immediately represented by New Gallery in Houston, their youngest artist.

Influenced by an environment that fostered the blurring of boundaries separating all the arts, as early as 1990 Garrett was using cardboard and resin over steel and wood armature forms to create room-sized installations of organic, freestanding, figurative imagery. On occasion, modern dance troops have been engaged to perform within the installations themselves, costumed by Garrett. She brought this interdisciplinary approach to the arts at the inauguration of the prestigious Diverse Works Studio in Houston, where she exhibited with the Blue Men. Due in part to Garrett's early influence, Diverse Works has become a gathering place for international artists with diverse backgrounds.

Stylistically, Garrett's sculptures in cardboard have explored its unique color palette, texture and assemblage. Although her work ranges from the single piece to indoor/outdoor site-specific installations, she is best known for her multipart figurative compositions. These works fall into the categories of mini-environments designed for monumental, and sometimes serialized forms displayed in groupings that dominate large exterior or interior spaces.

Since the early 1990s, all of Garrett's work has been marked by intense subject matter and by subtle textural technique. At first she achieved unusual patterns by fusing into the surface of her sculptures textures composed of deconstructed cardboard; she then sculpted her forms onto steel armatures, which created ribbed figurative motifs and forms.

Garrett's work is strongly autobiographical. Her fascination with abstracted figurative forms, reminiscent of her personal experiences in Oklahoma and Texas, has been discussed in depth in the literature. Even in the few instances in which the artist has chosen to respond to earlier historical art forms, the imagery has personal significance. Fencing, completed in 2005, symbolizes Garrett's view of a female as the mother and protector. The ceiling at the Manger Chapel reminds us of early religious masterpieces.

Over the years the artist has created a number of memorable installation exhibitions, including Leaps of Boundaries in Houston's Allen Center (1993–94), the Houston Art Park (1993), the Houston Museum of Natural History (1996), Bush International Airport (1995), HKS Architect's Headquarters, El Centro College Green Space, Dallas, and the Dallas Central Public Library (2007). These installations confirm the artist's sensitivity to architectural context and her interest in the interplay of natural light on the cardboard that exploits its translucency and transparency.

Garrett has been exhibited with such artists of our time as Picasso (Philbrook Museum, The Innovators), Marc di Suvero, John Henry, and Dale Chihully, among others.

A dominant presence in the visual art world, Karen Garrett and her work have long provoked considerable controversy as part of the art/craft debate. However, with exhibitions at such major museum venues as the Cockrell Butterfly House, Houston Museum of Natural History, Blaffer Museum of Fine Arts, Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Dallas Contemporary and the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, there can be little doubt that her lasting contribution to art of our times is an established fact.

Adapted from an essay by Charles Rulander III (former Associate Professor, University of St. Thomas, Houston) and various published articles written about the artist.

 

 

 
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