Karen Gunderson


Kings: Donahue/Sosinski Art through Dec 19

Published in Review, December 1, 1998

There is a continuum between all extremes, a line of incremental shifts that binds together and blends all opposing purities. As much with art as with anything else. Abstraction and figuration are two ends of a single strand and, as with everything of the psyche, as with everything that comes of the action of our minds, an active dynamism ties between the two. The emphasis is in constant motion, the focus changes. The reliance on one mode soon becomes a dependence on the other.

Which is to say that a period of abstract work prepares the field for the return to the figurative, and a time of figurative art turns the soil for a feeling for the abstract. Each mode will follow the other, each is the inevitable subsequent of the other, for each serves its psychic purpose—each is a necessity, and history is our tumbling development. In the simplest form, this is to say—it is natural for forms to rise from the formless, for images to emerge out of the darkness. Ruminating for long enough, we will begin to dream.

And what we dream has a significance. Images possess a valency, a prescribed direction of meaning and capability for influence. In dreams and in imagination, in the life of an individual and in the life of a culture, images emerge with a reason. Which ones come matters, which is to say there will always be a component of the archetypal in them. They carry a weight of deep implication.

The emergence of the image of the king is a traditional and studied quantity. The king’s arrival in a variety of cultures represents the wisdom of the unconscious mind entering into consciousness. The king is the image of good judgment and self-willing, the capacity of the mind to know and direct itself. According to the psychologist C. G. Jung, the king is the symbol of the harmonious union of conscious and unconscious mind. It signifies the achievement of individuation—the goal of maturity, the fulfilled development of an independent and individual personality.

Karen Gunderson clearly knows much of the significance of the king. Her current exhibition at Donahue/Sosinski presents five large oil paintings of historical kings, along with 10 small panel paintings that isolate and display visual motifs drawn from the larger works. Each of the five kings was selected as a moral exemplar—King David, 1993 as the moral light of his people; King Alfred The Great, 1998 for promoting learning during the Dark Ages; King Boris III, 1998 (of Bulgaria) and Danish King, 1993 (King Christian) for resisting the Nazi slaughter of the Jews; and King Louis XIV, 1998 as a proponent of the arts.

The exhibition is also Gunderson’s second presentation of her black paintings—figurative works painted entirely in black, a technique she has been developing for 10 years. Gunderson’s method for making the figures evident to the eye, her manipulation of the darkest of pigments, the color of darkness itself, is something I have not seen before, and constitutes a stunning accomplishment—a unique style of painting.

She employs a variety of blacks to obtain a range of differing values, or darknesses, but their differences do not account for the evidence of the figures, which are as clearly visible as they would be had she illustrated them with a full palette. Rather, she scores the black field using only her brush, covering it with patterns of lightly incised lines that determine the planes and surfaces of the image by their direction and movement, much as one would in an engraving. But the visual effect is entirely different. Engraving’s line work reveals the white of the paper; Gunderson’s scoring of black paint opens only onto more black. What the scoring also does is direct the reflected light. In essence, the scoring choreographs the paintings’ sheen, creating the image as a function of pure, white light. The image arises from a background that seems to have the richness and density of black satin, a mysterious space of a velvet texture. The image literally glows, exists as a shimmer, almost hovers in the air between the work and the viewer.

Gunderson’s strict employment of pure black makes the inevitable reference to the work of Ad Reinhardt. But whereas Reinhardt presumed the faintest configuration of the simplest geometry, Gunderson pulls forth the human figure of the fully developed self; where Reinhardt drew the viewer into the heart of a mystery, Gunderson raises the recognizable figure up and out of the backdrop of a mystery; where Reinhardt saw a separation between art and life, Gunderson finds life within her art.

Her method is ideally suited to her images, for the historical specificities of each of her selected kings is not the primary issue. Emergence is the matter, the rising of the human configuration, of our own configuration, out of the blank of the unconfigured dark. Her manipulation of light itself, her building of the image in the glare of reflected illumination, the image of king after king surrounding you on all the gallery’s walls, coming at you on all sides, shining in the air, is an enhancement of the symbolic import of the king. It is the emergence of knowledge from mystery, the emergence of light from the darkness, the emergence of mind from unknowing. Light as a symbol in itself signifies the emergence of awareness from the unconscious, and it is not uneventful that King Louis XIV, the Sun King, has been included in the array. The king as sun, aglow in the gallery field.

And just as the personal identities of the kings is not the principal issue, neither are the specifics of their moral statures, the actions they committed that culled Gunderson’s admiration. It is moral stature itself that is at the core of the symbol of the king, for the moral component is the culmination of the maturing of the psyche and the achievement of self-possession. It is not the adoption of any one moral code that is the moment of distinction, but the acquisition of the capacity to devise a moral code. The capacity for personal choice, the meaning of self-possession, is itself meaningless without a set of standards to guide the choices one makes, and it is meaningless again if the standards are borrowed, are mere obedience. In the end, the king signifies the integrity of the mind, for the king is dependent on nothing, everything depends on the king. As an act of the imagination, the image of the king is the image of personal independence, and self command.

Personal independence is also the direct implication of Gunderson’s incised black-on-black style, for uniqueness of means is the ultimate act of integrity for an artist. Having devised a manner of extracting the human figure from the dark, it is no surprise that Gunderson found her way to this symbol. What is surprising is the impression, a quality of experience that cannot be found elsewhere, for no one else paints like this. Hers is an art that has achieved its maturity.