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An Artist's Brush With Past: A Retrospective


Donald Karwelis, this is your life.

Karwelis, a prominent Orange County artist, will meet a big part of his past Friday when he views a 20-year retrospective of his work at the Irvine Fine Arts Center.

The event promises to be educational, the artist says. The display was culled from private and museum collections, and Karwelis ahas not seen many of the 45 items shown since he sold them.

"I've never been in a room with 20 years of my work before," Karwelis said in an interview this week in his Santa Ana studio. "My goal is to look at it as if someone else had done it."

That might not come easily, however. Karwelis told about a time early in his career when he visited the home of a collector of his work. He saw a ceramic piece he admired, but he puzzled over the artist. Finally, the collector told him to turn the piece over--and there was Karwelis' signature on the bottom. "When I'm on a work streak, things just kind of fly off me," Karwelis said.

Karwelis started painting in Laguna Beach in 1956, concentrating on seascapes and moving later into colorful and expressive portraits. He visited Europe in 1966 and moved briefly to Riverside when he returned.

The Irvine exhibit chronicles the evolution of styles that followed. Karwelis abandoned painting for a time, concentrating on bronze casting, printmaking and other media. In the early '70s, the artist moved into conceptual art, with paper constructions and sculpture based on simple geometric shapes. "I really reduced the elements in what I was creating," Karwelis explained. "I was expressing with almost nothing."

A few years later, Karwelis' work began to reflect his growing interest in Japanese thought and poetry. Many of the pieces from this period are multicolored triptyches based on a large "X" as a formal element. These give way to geometric circle images, and, more recently, a return to his early interest in Expressionism.

Karwelis has actively resisted staying with a particular style or theme for too long, looking instead for "freshness and surprise." He says he abandoned his popular "X" works of the late '70s for the same reason he stopped painting seascapes early in his career--he had exhausted the subject, and he felt predictability was just around the corner. "I want to take risks," he said.

The 51-year-old artist speaks passionately about his work. For him, a blank canvas is "charged with anticipation," a "painting waiting to happen." And he likened the emotional charge of the initial brushstroke he makes on the canvas to a lightning bolt. "The first one is the maximum," he said, and the challenge is to carry that energy through the completion of the painting.

For an artist such as Karwelis, whose work is owned by museums and who has regular gallery shows in Los Angeles (and occasionally New York), Orange County may seem an odd choice for a base. "There's no structure for communication (among artists) down here," he said, but the county's isolation from the art center of Los Angeles, while an economic inconvenience, allows him to spend less time to meet the demands of the highly political gallery scene and more time to work.

Beside, he said, he likes the county. "Orange County is Southern California now," said the artist. "It's what the future wants to be."

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