Karen Gunderson's Black Kings
What an improvement on Ad Reinhardt! The figure—the human self-image, as George Frankl calls it---disappeared into the blackness of his late painting, and re-emerges from the blackness of Karen Gunderson’s painting. One can breathe a sigh of relief: life has not abdicated its throne to death, however pressed by death it may be. What seemed lost forever never went away; it just hid in the depths. Clearly blackness has come full circle from Reinhardt’s darkness—shadow to the nth degree—and were finally allowed to do so because they were as sacred and regal as it. If Reinhardt’s blackness is an ironic cul de sac for abstraction, the Gunderson’s blackness breathes ironic new life into representation.
For Matisse blackness played an “important part in color orchestration.” It was as vital and musical as any color. For Kandinsky it was a “silence with no possibility…something burnt out, like the ashes of a funeral pyre, something motionless like a corpse.” Well, Gunderson’s enlightened kings—not just ordinary figureheads but inspired risktakers who used their authority and power for the welfare of other human beings, showing that the state can sometimes rise to the human occasion—are corpses that have become phoenixes, however charred they remain by “the silence of death” that blackness usually symbolizes, as Kandinsky noted.
Moreover, instead of orchestrating blackness as one color among many, the way Matisse did, Gunderson orchestrates blackness itself. Indeed, her paintings are miracles of musical blackness—monochrome played with Paganini-like virtuosity. Made of thousands of gestures of black, sometimes melodically repeating, sometimes polyphonically at odds, they show the vitality possible with what seems inert an empty—a dangerous pit into which one can fall, a blank wall one comes up against, letting perception go no further. Indeed, Gunderson is as courageous in her use of black as her kings were in their dark times.
Thus Gunderson’s blackness is no longer the pause in the music of the picture, as Kandinsky called it, that hovered profound remains a desert, but a richly textured surface emanating its own subtle, ever-changing light. It has become atmosphere, and sings with light, making it less oppressive if still omnipresent. Gunderson, then, uses blackness in an original, organic way, renewing its power and enigma. It is both abysmal an d detached—signals the unfathomable depths of feeling that led her royal figures to make the brave decisions they did, as well as the impersonal, epic remoteness of their spiritual victory over physical and social adversity. Each is a remote, isolated as well as intimate, engaging figure—high on a throne or a horse or in a space of his own, yet at the same time very human, as the changing expressions of his face show.
Gunderson’s touch is both descriptive detail and pure energy. That is, it meticulously delineates brick, cloth, wood, skin, metal, but also exists in its own expressive and material right. Thus, it is both subjective signature and objectifying sign. Gunderson’s painterly ingenuity serves her larger point well: her pictures convey the special unity of worldly action and emotional conviction that was the daring life of her kings. Their authority and grandeur is moral, not just the result of their position. Each was, in his own way, an authentically courageous hero—a true role model in bleak times. However much each is a black ghost, the subliminal light that informs their blackness bespeaks their practical idealism. Each was a bright beacon in dark times, outwardly as dark as the times but inwardly luminous, their dark light radiating into the darkness beyond themselves.
Thus King David, the savior of his people, looks up to the light of God which illuminates him. King Alfred, a savior of his people in another way, brought the light of learning to tem during the dark ages. It is symbolized by the pitch black window behind him. He shows his own learning by reading at a table. Kind Christian of Denmark and King Boris of Bulgaria were bright lights in dark Nazi times. In different ways, they were saviors of the Jews. Christian was indeed s a compassionate Christian: he showed his solidarity with Jews everywhere in occupied Europe by wearing a yellow star—proclaiming his Jewish identity—in effect daring the Nazis to liquidate him as well as them. Boris was a German ally, but like Christian, he rose to the occasion of the brutal treatment of the Jews by refusing to let the Nazis ship them out of his country, thus successfully standing up to Hitler. The foppish Louis XIV seems strange in this morally exalted company, but he was called the Sun King for good reason: he brought prosperity and grandeur to his country. Like the other kings, he was a high point in the history of his country, All of Gunderson’s kings—two ancient, two modern, and one somewhere in between—make an important social different—changed the course of history.
Gunderson’s pictures are rich with symbols—the lustrous attributes of legendary royalty, including the ironic royalty of the yellow star. These are made all the more ironically luminous by the overshadows and undershadows that haunt them—indeed, out of which they are constructed—adding a note of uncertainty to their presence. Sometimes this is very much in keeping with the symbol, for example, the ironical butterfly, a signal that a change is about to occur—but what kind and with what results? In the case of Alfred and Louis, the eccentric shape of the canvas itself—in Alfred’s case a piece of the wall through which we can see the king without him knowing it, in Louis’s case a frame (appropriately ornate) out of which the king is about to step as though out of a picture—becomes a symbol of uncertain change. The shaped canvas is no doubt a rhetorical device-a bit of high theater s well as material tour de force, but it gives the canvas a presence and dignity of its own, adding to that of the king, while at the same time separating us from him: he is in a spiritual place of his own, while we are curious if admiring outsiders.
If art is a compound of symbol and sensation, as Hanna Segal says—sensation bringing symbol to life, symbol adding meaning to sensation—then Gunderson’s “sensational” black is also a potent, complex symbol. It represents both the cosmic heights to which human beings can rise in a difficult world and the misery they can perpetuate. It is because of its sensational ambiguity that Gunderson’s blackness has the epic stature of her forgotten kings—for the blackness is also the space of memory they inhabit. Clearly, she is suggesting that the time is ripe for a new king—a real king, such as hers were. He might appear out of nowhere—the blackness—but the same blackness suggests that no one like him may ever appear again.