Anyone who has ever ridden the New York subway at rush hour knows the feeling of being pressed so close to your fellow commuters that you can see their every pore, shaving nick and flaking follicle. To artist Karel Funk, newly arrived in Manhattan from his native Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2001, that proximity to strangers on a train proved overwhelming at first—then career changing. He’d been toying with suburban angst in his paintings but felt that route was already well traveled by others. In urban voyeurism, however, he knew he had found his ideal subject.
“I was fascinated by how this boundary of personal space completely disappeared on the subway,” Funk recalls by phone from his home in Winnipeg, where he returned in 2003 and works in a studio in the basement of his house. “You could see details of somebody’s ear or neck that you’d never observe just socializing with friends because there’s this boundary we all keep.”
It’s those close encounters with strangers that inspire Funk’s hyper-realist, neo-Renaissance portraits of young urbanites, the latest of which go on view in April at New York’s 303 Gallery. “I wanted to convey that moment when you’re forced to look intimately at the back of a stranger’s head, but I didn’t want there to be any emotional connection,” says Funk, who depicts minute details like an acne scar or a fabric fold with exquisite, microscopic clarity, applying sometimes up to a hundred layers of acrylic to a wood panel. To Carter Foster, curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which owns a Funk, the 38-year-old artist “comes close to [Edward] Hopper in the way his works implicate the viewer as a kind of voyeur.”
Yet even as he allows us to scrutinize his subjects, Funk reveals little of their lives. His paintings are firmly rooted in the history of portraiture, he says, acknowledging his debt to Renaissance masters such as Holbein and Bronzino, with their focus on precise detail and brushwork. And like those artists, he pays great attention to what his subjects wear, seeing the jackets and hoodies he provides them as modern-day armor and shields.
But unlike traditional portraiture, in which the subject typically locks eyes with the viewer and background details provide clues about them, Funk’s subjects face away from us or have their eyes closed, as if they’re unaware of our presence.
“As soon as you see a face—there might be some tension in the eyes or mouth—there’s a story, a feeling,” he says. By obscuring the face or cloaking it altogether as Funk does, “it becomes very hard to find a specific narrative or emotion about that person,” he notes. “My paintings give you very little. There’s nothing there to connect with except for the formal qualities, the texture of skin, hair or clothing, and the questions you’re left with about ‘Who is that person?’”