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In the Studio: Brad Kunkle

by Allison Malafronte

Brad Kunkle in the studio working on his painting Unconquered Sun.

Since selling out his debut solo exhibition in New York City on opening night a decade ago, painter Brad Kunkle has continued on the same path that brought him his initial success. This is not a path that follows fashionable or commercial trends, but rather one that organically flows from the experiences, memories, interests, and intrigues that have fascinated him since childhood. The way this Pennsylvania-raised artist sees it, his life as an painter is like a deeply rooted tree that over the years remains the same at its foundation but that branches out in many directions as he himself grows and evolves. 

The soil of this artistic foundation is comprised of an eclectic and robust mixture of influences: a respect for traditional oil-painting techniques with a natural ability to render beautifully realistic faces and forms; a fascination with surrealistic settings, symbolic objects, and the “magic of the missing”; an innate love of the wilderness and woods, coupled with a fascination for the unseen world; a Pre-Raphaelite-like poetic view of the feminine, especially in the context of nature; and an affinity for unique combinations of materials and media, specifically monochromatic umbers and browns in grisaille with reflective gold and silver leaf. 

The Warden, 2020, oil and gold and silver leaf on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Courtesy Arcadia Contemporary (Pasadena, CA).

Over the years those elements have coalesced with the philosophies and observations Kunkle was exploring at a particular time to form a range of emotionally charged subjects and narratives. His most recent iterations are based on the subject of alchemy—including such pieces as The New Moon and The Warden—which will be on view in his solo exhibition titled alkәmē this summer at Arcadia Contemporary. 

<em>Eclipse</em>, 2015, oil and silver leaf on wood, 18 x 18 in. Private collection. This painting inspired the pose for the “Pinky Swear” title card in the Anne with an E opening sequence.

In this Q+A, Kunkle checks in from his friend Martin Wittfooth’s studio in the Hudson River Valley of Upstate New York, where he is hard at work finishing the paintings for his exhibition. The artist shares the inspiration behind the title and centerpiece of the show, the recent changes the pandemic has brought in to his life,  how color abandonment creates a more surreal and timeless setting for his subjects, the serendipitous story of how his paintings inspired the opening sequence for the Netflix series Anne with an A, and more. 

AM: You grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and I know that nature (especially the sprawling woods and forests of your youth) continue to figure prominently in your work. What was your childhood and young adulthood like? How did it impact the vision and imagination you have today? 

BK: I grew up camping and hiking every summer with my family, and Acadia National Park in Maine was our favorite spot. I think we had been there eight times by the time I graduated high school. I remember looking out the car window on those vacations at the open farm landscapes and rolling hills and dreaming of what was in those patches of trees in the distance.

We also lived near a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, and there was a spot called Bake Oven Knob, where we would help count the hawk migrations every year. So I learned at an early age how to identify hawks and raptors by their silhouettes in my binoculars. A lot of these things we did left room for my imagination to fill in the missing parts, and I think that has had a big impact on my work. I want the viewer to feel that “magic of the missing.”

The New Moon, 2020, oil and silver leaf on linen, 60 x 40 in. Private collection.AM: How did your education or training create the foundation for who you are as an artist—or conversely create some sort of gap that motivated you to move in a new direction? 

BK: Great question. I struggle with this one because I really value the things I was taught at Kutztown University. I had excellent professors that gave me skills for my toolbox, as I like to call it. But after undergrad, I decided that I needed life experience more than anything, if I wanted to create art. I could paint, but I didn’t know what to paint, and I didn’t know how to develop my own style. So, I took off from painting for almost eight years. I became a house painter and played in an indie rock band. I started to paint dog portraits on the side and eventually taught myself to start throwing things out of the toolbox. The techniques and tools I didn’t connect to got tossed, and that’s when I started walking down my own path.

AM: I read David Molesky’s “The Ballad of Bushwick” article in the April 2020 issue of Fine Art Connoisseur. It was interesting to learn of the artist community you and others organically formed in Bushwick and how that “family”  became formative to everyone involved. What are your best memories of that time? How important do you think it is for artists to be together in communities and create in shared spaces?

BK: That was a great article. There were a lot of great memories. One that stands out is how I met two of my best friends to this day, Adam Miller and Martin Wittfooth. I met Adam during Bushwick Open Studios—I just walked in his open door. At some point Adam started telling me I had to meet his friend Martin. One day I was in a bookstore and saw the cover to New American Paintings. I was so impressed and made a mental note of the image and the name, and thought ‘I need to meet this guy.’ A week later I was at Adam’s studio and in walks his friend. I ask him to show me some of his work. The first image he pulls up on his phone is the painting I just saw on the cover.  

To this day, when I walk in to their studios and see their works in progress, it’s inspiring and pushes me. I don’t always get that same experience when I see another artist’s post on Instagram. Sometimes it actually pulls me down a bit because I feel like I should be working hard to make something as great as what I’m seeing, but here I am on Instagram. If you are in the studio, you feel the presence and energy of the work and the artist—it gets into your bones, and it’s a totally different experience. I definitely feel these communities are vital.

Pareidolia, 2016, oil and silver on wood, 16 x 20 in. Private collection.

AM: Speaking of studios, I know you recently relocated from Brooklyn and are in the process of looking to move toward Pennsylvania or New Jersey. In the interim, where are you currently painting and working, and how did that relocation come about?

BK: Funny follow-up to the last answer because I’m currently painting in Martin Wittfooth’s barn studio up in the Hudson River Valley. He is not here at the moment, but he’ll be back in June, and we’ll be studio mates for a while. We are both really looking forward to it because it’s been many years since we have worked nearby. 

I was finishing up my upcoming solo show in a temporary studio I built in the corner of our loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I had let go of my studio in Soho about six months earlier and just needed a place to finish the show so I didn’t want to sign a new lease. My fiancé and I were planning to move out of the city after my show, which was supposed to open April 15. When the first cases of the virus started being reported in the U.S., we started to think about getting out of the city. I called Martin and asked him if we could go hide out for a few weeks at his place Upstate. We actually left the day before the Mayor made his first public announcement. We’ve been so grateful to be up here. Martin and his wife are returning from Savannah in June, and there’s enough space for us to stay here until we find a place of our own to settle into. I love being here, and Martin’s barn studio is amazing. But I’ve never had the same studio for more than two years. I’m looking forward to having a studio that I own and can grow in. We just have to find it!

Seer, 2012, oil and gold leaf on wood, 19 x 27 in. Private collection.

AM: Over the last two months, how has the pandemic put a strain on you/your art and production schedule? In what ways has this time perhaps brought some sort of positive in to your life?

BK: It’s actually lifted the stress. My show has been pushed back two months, and I’ve had more time to work on each painting. I’ve been able to actually observe trees in my physical surroundings as I work on the trees in my paintings, which has been invaluable. 

Switch, 2012, oil and gold and silver leaf on wood, 16 x 16 in. Private collection.  AM: You have been showing at Arcadia Contemporary for ten years. When you put together a solo exhibition, do you structure it around a specific theme or subject or idea? Or is it usually the recent work from the past year, in whatever shape or form that takes? Can you describe/summarize the collection of work that will be on view at Arcadia in June?

BK: My solo shows form around an idea that’s at the forefront of my mind at the time. Everything I paint is rooted in the same foundation, but as the years go on, I grow and so does the idea. Ironically—or maybe not—the evolution of my work is like a tree. The roots are the core principles that have inspired the work since day one, and that I’ve talked about in many interviews: the divine feminine, following intuition, embracing your own nature, etc.—and each of these shows or groups of paintings over the years is a branch, and each painting a leaf.    

This collection of work for my summer show is called alkәmē [alchemy]. It’s an exploration into magical thinking and the esoteric corners of spirituality. All religions and even secular superstitions share the idea that there are invisible forces in the universe that can manipulate our lives, and there are people that can manipulate those forces. But that’s just one branch, so you’ll still see some of the branches leaves that grew from this too. 

The Watering Hole, 2010, oil and gold and silver on linen, 45 x 36 in. Private collection. AM: What’s one painting from the show that you are particularly proud of or eager to have people see, and why? Is there an interesting story behind it that would enhance one’s viewing experience to know in advance?

BK: The New Moon. It was already revealed at the LA Art Show and is intended to be the centerpiece of my show. I’m proud of this first and foremost because it was a big risk for me to paint a giant moon with no figures. My collectors at Arcadia are primarily figurative art collectors. The idea behind the painting was to encourage a new world—a different, better, more conscious world. It’s crazy to think that we have now entered a world with the pandemic that IS so different. Something in the painting that people may miss is laying in the grass in the bottom right corner. There’s a white stone. In my research into magical practices, a white stone was often carried by spell casters, as a link to the invisible world. The white horizon lines on the silver leaf in the distance are that invisible world. If the light is right, they appear and disappear depending on where you are standing in the room.

AM: Probably because of the browns and umbers and use of gold leaf, your paintings always remind me of autumn and those transitory feelings between bright, carefree summer and cold, darker winter. There is a also a sense of being somehow between worlds or between a dream and reality in your work. What types of factors beyond aesthetic/technical do you think contribute to that feeling or emotion in your work? 

BK: It think it goes back to that influence as a kid. I understand that for me, magic lies in the unknown. If I don’t define something for the viewer, it allows his or her own imagination to fill in the spaces and answer the questions. My light sources are all over the place or just undefined. That’s all on purpose. I want the viewer to wonder what time of day it is or even be transported to a place where there is no apparent light source. I love art that lifts me out of my everyday experience, and so that’s the kind of art I want to make for other people.

Maybe It’s All Just a Myth, 2019, oil and Caplain leaf on linen, 18 x 14 in. Private collection.AM: Going back to a technical question: What it is about browns in grisaille and metals (gold and silver leaf) that you find to be a more effective language than color? At what point did these materials and techniques first speak to you and find a natural connection to the type of subject matter you like to explore? 

BK: Colors that we see every day define THIS reality. I’m creating an unknown place. Color abandonment is a way to step in that direction of the surreal. I first connected to grisaille when I was in college and was writing a paper on transcendentalism. I actually made a painting of a grisaille hand on an umber background to go along with my writing project. The idea being that since color is subjective and is defined in the brain of each individual, than the ‘truth’ of an object we see can be stripped down to the light it reflects, not the color that it is.  So you and I can agree that we both see the ball because light is reflecting off of it, but you may see it as red and I see it as brown. So, for me, grisaille is a step toward truth. I’ve often wondered if this is one of the subconscious reasons people say black and white is timeless.

AM: I recently learned that your artwork inspired Alan Williams, a director from Imaginary Forces (a visual-storytelling/design company), and he reached out to you to help create the opening title sequence in the Netflix series Anne with An E (based on the literary classic Anne of Greene Gables). How did that collaboration come about?

BK: The Anne project came about serendipitously. I was watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and I was so impressed with the opening titles that I Googled to see who made them. It was a company called Imaginary Forces. One week later I got an email from Imaginary Forces. No joke. A director there, Alan Williams, had been collecting images of my work on a Pinterest board for years. He was waiting for the right project to reach out, and when they had the opportunity to pitch for the Anne with an E titles, he immediately thought of me. It was surreal. They asked if I could make a few original paintings, use images of my existing work, and come on board as an art director. Alan was a dream to work with. He insisted that every frame look as close to the integrity of my work as possible. We only had like two months to put it together, and I’m really proud of what the team made. The print I released was based on the original oil paintings I made, which were then used in the animation sequence.  

Anne, oil on linen, 20 x 16 in. Collection the artist.