Karel Funk: at home in the hood

A much-celebrated Winnipeg artist comes home, with paintings that awaken us to realities in our everyday existence

By Gordon Gage

There may be nothing more satisfying for an artist who has international recognition than to find their work being exhibited in their own home town, and that is certainly the case for Winnipeg’s Karel Funk. We often talk about Winnipeggers leaving home to explore opportunities elsewhere, hoping they return to their roots. In this instance we have the opportunity to celebrate this Winnipeg born and based painter, who is known for his portraits of lone figures and hooded avatars.

Untitled #56, 2012. © Karel Funk, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York and Galerie Division, Montréal
Untitled #56, 2012. © Karel Funk, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York and Galerie Division, Montréal

Funk’s exhibition just opened at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and is an exhibit not to miss. His work is so fine in detail that it leaves you thinking that these hand-painted pieces are actually photographs. Many of the works feature people clothed in various types of outerwear, many in winter parkas and jackets, something that Manitoba residents will surely identify with.

Funk obtained a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Manitoba before graduating in 2003 with his master’s from Columbia University in New York. It was in New York where, traveling by subway, the artist was inspired by the human interaction and close proximity this underground travel imposed upon people. The boundaries that we respect by not invading personal space are evident there, as we aren’t allowed direct eye contact with the people in the portraits, and the people portrayed appear totally involved in their own inner worlds, much as we would be if standing in their place.

Untitled #66, 2014. © Karel Funk, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York
Untitled #66, 2014. © Karel Funk, courtesy 303 Gallery, New York

Funk’s human portraiture left me ruminating about who those people were and what were they thinking at the moment they were captured by the artist. While they stood amongst many others in a subway car, part of a community, what we might sense here is the reality that we are actually traveling through life truly alone. The constant bombardment of visual and auditory stimuli we are normally subject to is shut off – as represented by the stark white background.

In his more recent works, human form is abandoned and we observe nothing but the shell of an item of clothing that would normally surround us, a hyper-realistic visual of a coat or hood, painted in detail that leaves you appreciating the skill, patience and diligence that Funk applies in achieving such mastery of his medium.

The works are in acrylic paint on wood panels. Andrew Kear, curator of the Funk exhibition, has presented the pieces in a way that reflects on the artist’s own work. Each painting is well-isolated from its neighbours, set in white-walled galleries that draw your focus to a single work; oblivious to all else that surrounds you.

Funk’s work has been praised by respected publications like the New York Times (“outstanding”) and Artforum, and his pieces are represented in collections of major museums, from New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art to the National Gallery of Canada and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This retrospective celebrates Karel Funk’s incredible talent, bringing honour to another of Winnipeg and Manitoba’s artistic ambassadors. It’s yet one more happy reminder of the depth and reach Manitoba’s arts community has around the world.

The Karek Funk exhibition is on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until Oct. 2.

Gordon Gage is past chair of the board of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

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