From the beginning of her career, Karen Gunderson has based her art on the principle of “energy;” that is, the perceptible totality of the artist’s physical engagement with surface, image, brush- stroke, and pigment. It is, in short, the correlative of what she has always called “the haptic,” or tactility, the insistent presence of which is evident everywhere in the painting.
In the late 1980s, she began introducing black paint into her work. A decade later, she transitioned to working exclusively in shades of black, captivated by the way black pigment, not only reflects light, but also somehow turns itself into light. As a viewer or a light source moves from one side of an all-black Gunderson painting to the other, its surface shifts and reconfigures before one’s eyes, depending on the angle of light striking the paint- ing or the viewer’s position in front of the work. In her paintings of moons, rain, stars, figures, and flowers, what appear to be patches and intervals of glowing silver are solely black pigments in concert with light. In her ocean paintings, swells of black paint register the movements of the artist’s brush, creating gradations of light that burst with radiant luminescence. Thus, her surfaces are at once black and light, pure pigment and pure immateriality.
Coming of age as an artist in the late 1960s and 1970s, Gunderson absorbed the principles of Minimalism and Concep- tualism, but stayed true to her own sensibility—generous, passionate, humanistic. Painting for her has always been about something more than itself, although she has a superb structural intelligence and a magnificent sense of facture. The clouds she painted throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the water, moons and stars that she continues to paint, are all primary forms as defined by the Minimalist paradigm, and, while explicitly figu- rative, are implicitly abstract. For her, however, formalist logic and Conceptualist irony, seductive as they are, remain in and of themselves a dead end. When Gunderson paints the ocean, she evokes environmental threat. When she paints constellations, she often, in her titles, unites them with major events in world
history: the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews in World War II, the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Gunderson’s work in black, moreover, carries on a constant conversation with the art of the Old Masters. She has explored, in black, virtually every genre in Old Master painting: the figure (in- cluding portraits of biblical personages and monarchs), still life, and landscape (cloudscape, seascape, starscape). She has delib- erately and consciously taken on the challenge of making black pigment the aesthetic equal of rich, virtuosic chromatic color, chiaroscuro, perspective, and modeling. In this self-assumed task, she has to be one of the most courageous and risk-taking artists working today. She readily acknowledges finding inspira- tion in Chinese art as well, particularly in the landscape painting of the Northern and Southern Song dynasties. At the same time, she has always had an entirely unfussy and pragmatic relation- ship to materials and techniques. For her water paintings, for example, she uses lots of cheap disposable brushes of different sizes. For her moon and rain paintings, she uses stenciling done by both hand and laser-cutting to achieve nubbly, yet exqui- sitely precise surfaces that catch infinitely varied flecks of light.
In her clouds, water, moons, and constellations especially, Gunderson explores nothing less than the cosmos itself—the entire universe—in all its sublimity and power, process and change. For her, the cosmos is neither cold nor remote, though capable of enormous swings between creation and destruction, serenity and tumult. Her art thus participates in the tradition of nineteenth-century American landscape painting as well as the American Sublime of Emerson and Wallace Stevens in celebrating simultaneously the literalness of “things as they are” and the numinous and transcendental realms whose nonhuman purity bears witness to the moral tides of human existence. In this way, her work provides us with both intimacy and grandeur.
Elizabeth Frank, 2016