Karen Gunderson


Professor of Art and Art History:
Drury University:
Springfield, MO

Any superficial comparison of David Bushman’s paintings and those of Karen Gunderson would suggest that they had little in common, and yet; I know that not to be true.  I the following remarks I will attempt to show some links, in the face of the obvious dissimilarity between Wisconsin winter scapes (Bushman) and the royal family portraits by Gunderson.

Both artists are Wisconsin natives who came f age during the turbulent 60s, studied at Whitewater and, in fact, had the same painting teacher.  One might then, logically ask why the paint so differently.  My answer to that would, ironically, invoke another similarity.  Both of these artists are fiercely independent and both have consistently avoided climbing into stylistic bandwagons.  If, as their teacher, I had anything to do with that, I am so proud, although I suspect I didn’t’.  Perhaps I can rightfully claim to have done no harm as the doctors say.

Whitewater’s Art Department during the middle and late 60s was a once in a lifetime phenomenon.  The trustees at the time expressed such a hope on numerous occasions, as the numbers in the department grew at an alarming rate, from six majors in 1962 to over 200 in 1968.  The faculty increased from two to twenty-two during that same short span.  The art scene at Whitewater today, while highly credible and of remarkable quality, bears only a partial resemblance to the red hot poker which seared all of those participants (faculty and students alike) in the 60s version.

The Viet Nam War was certainly part of the fuel that drove it.   The Art Department became the center for “the movement” on campus, and the spirit of rebellion transformed the creative process into something resembling a live fore. During that short, window, Dylan went electric, Rock’N Roll became the language of the young, the Whitewater College of Fine Arts was launched and Gunderson and Bushman, along with an astoundingly large percentage of those of us who were there, began lifelong commitments to art making and became participants in the cultural subversion that is inherent in creative activity.  Given that radical milieu as a training ground, I would be shocked if their paintings had any obvious affinities at all.

As I see it, the bond shared by these two artists, other than the historical matrix, is their love of paint.  Neither are nonobjective, or expressionist painters, but both are completely involved in the act of painting.  The “act part” (a term we used back then) in both cases, is tied to the application of the paint.† There is something dependably fulfilling about putting on the paint.  These two learned to love t very early in their careers.  I remember Gunderson trying to explain it one day in the painting studio in Old Main, “I love painting! You get what you put!” In the painting she found the autonomy and immediacy that allowed her ebullient personality to soar.  Bushman share s a similar allegiance to the application of the paint as the primary “art part.” Take a close look at Bushman’s brushwork, just as you might with as expressionist painter.  The scale of the strokes is the micro but the expressive content is undiminished as they stand n dramatic contrast to the scale of imagery, provides cover for an almost surreptitious expressive feat at a micro scale.  It is precisely at this scale where Bushman achieves his most potent visual metaphor.  He provides not just the image of nature but also something of its process with his use of Whiteout (yes, the real stuff) as he partially obscures his own exuberant creation, just as Wisconsin winter obscures nature’s.

Gunderson’s black paintings use only black paint, she achieves an amazing range of value and color by varying the direction of the brush strokes and the glossiness of the paint, thus controlling the way light is reflected to the viewer.  She is able, with black alone, to model the royal figures in her paintings with astonishing chiaroscuro.  Such paint-handling skill led the philosopher/critic Donald Kuspit to describe her as a “contemporary master.”  It would be impossible to sustain her particular technical attach with out a true love for the medium, with all its smells and mess.  She gets what she puts!

Both Gunderson and Bushman are painter’s painters and both have pushed their craft to an idiosyncratic plane that confronts “the man” rather than ingratiates his wall.  The old gang can indeed be proud of this exhibition.