Karen Gunderson


The Heart Of Light

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
—T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” section I

Art is the molten fusion of the hand and the soul. The impulse to create is something more than just the self-appointing engaging in invention—it is a firm, confident, and constantly doubting hurtle at the hinge-point of an impossibility: to render as real and palpable the inward realm of an aromatic and shimmering existence, to build as hard fact the fleeting reflection of another region in which we also have our lives, and in which we all live a more lilting experience. To make art is to fashion the delicately braiding fire, it is to ignite a universally familiar light out of the dull materials of the duller earth—it is to call down to the soil a quiet and entrancing flame and to see that, as the Renaissance poet John Nashe wrote, “brightness falls from the air.” The accomplishment of true art is to bind the material of the body to the essential and immaterial matter of the spirit, to match the outer life to the inner, to make with the hand what only the inward senses can grasp. It is to over-rule the edicts of our divided nature. And the transparent, intangible, incarnadine blush of aesthetic bliss—which, for those with the right inflection of personal nature to know it, travels through the veins and filaments of the spirit with something like a religious ardor, something like an aimless and drifting moment of love—is always triggered by some artist making some aspect of the inner life somehow incarnate, by some artist breaking the laws of physics and fate, breaking the laws of the physics of the soul.

That degree of authentic aesthetic excitation is a rare thing, and it is always a surprising and bracing thing to discover. This is the reason the art of Karen Gunderson is so extraordinary a revelation, and why it is appropriate that she has been gifted with her first solo exhibition in Spain at so prestigious a venue as the Circulo de Bellas Artes. To accomplish the conveyance of aesthetic bliss requires a full mastery of the means of art, and it requires something more. The artist who would aspire to more than merely a display of technique, who would attempt to achieve the true purposes of art, must essentially remake art. The artist who would live up the examples that have preceded her and would visit the spirit of our inmost nature on the inert materials of the earth must forge a form of art that has never been encountered before. She must find in the established artistic techniques a manner of art that is utterly new. This is precisely what Gunderson has achieved.

For art can grow cold. The vigor of its gestures can wither and become sclerotic, settle in stiffness and be overwhelmed with an encroaching deadness. If the animating essence of its nature is not renewed, the inert materials of the earth may overtake the vivacity of its urge. A continual heat is requisite, a fulgurating instigation of ever new impulses and ever new approaches, of new uses for the methods that have proved their worth, must be constantly applied—like the stoking and feeding of a flame that, without the addition of the fuel of inspiration, will come to gutter, leaving only the blackened chars of burnt wood. The sticks of mere material must be infused with a heart of light.

One can see the brilliant light of a new art, of art renewed and made itself again, throughout this exhibition of paintings by Gunderson. “Karen Gunderson: Black Paintings” displays more than a dozen works covering visual themes that the artist has been exploring and making her own over a period of years—the themes of enormous floral studies, kings and queens of exemplary moral stature, and, as the centerpiece of this exhibition, the Crucifixion. Among them all, you can see the evidence of something new, something never accomplished before. They constitute the matured acquisition of an entirely new conception for the use of paint—a thoroughly reconsidered method for the rendering of the aesthetically charged image. Here, by Gunderson’s hand, the creativity of art itself has been re-created.

Gunderson’s technical innovation is the painting of figurative works executed completely in black paint. The artist has been developing her technique for the black paintings since the late 1980s. She employs a variety of black hues to obtain a range of differing values, of distinguishing darknesses—ranging from the soft and subtle, almost succulent suffusion of lamp black to the midnight absence and light-absorbing eclipse of peach black. Yet, their differences of value do not account for the visual evidence of the figures, for the sheer fact that—painted in black set against backgrounds of virtually identical black—they are clear to the eye, as clearly visible as if they had been illustrated with a full palette.

Rather than illuminate her subject matter through the use of a full spectrum of hues, Gunderson engraves her imagery in the air between the painted surface and the viewer. Rather than simulate the effects of light in full-color images whose tones are orchestrated to denote a shade of vicarious illumination striking a vicarious scene, she instead projects actual light off her monochrome works and choreographs it into an image that coalesces in real space, in the space immediately before the viewer’s eyes.

Having chosen black as the color that most effectively offsets the projection of pure white light, Gunderson works as much like an engraver as a painter. She scores the black field of the painting 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 apparent movement, by the way they reflect the light that strikes them. In essence, Gunderson directs the reflection of light, controlling the simple physics of illumination and transforming the painting’s sheen into a visual ballet, creating the image out of pure light.

For all the similarity of technique, the effect is entirely different from that of engraving. The engraver’s line works upon the white of the paper; Gunderson’s scoring of black paint opens only onto more black. The white is the light itself. The image arises from a background that seems to have the richness and density of black satin, a mysterious space of velvet texture. The image literally glows, exists as a shimmer, and almost hovers in the air.

The effect of this technique, the quality of the visual impression made on the viewer, is as different from that of the normally painted image as is the technique itself from that of normative painting. Rather than accomplishing a flat visual display that simulates the appearance of a three-dimensional scene observed in real, volumetric space, Gunderson achieves an image that seems to function as fully three-dimensional, hung in space and as if sculpted in light. The image alters as you move around it. As one crosses back and forth before one of her paintings, or moves up and down, intensities of light change—what was dim becomes brilliantly lit, what nearly glowed begins to fall into shadow. Continue moving and relationships between foreground and background start to shift, angles of view on faces and torsos rotate, as if the figure itself were turning, and even facial expressions change. It is as if the figure were rendered holographically, sculpted out of the air by light.

It can be argued that what Gunderson has done is to move the vanishing point—moving it so extremely, she has shifted it out of the painting. In normal perspective composition, the vanishing point is placed only seemingly in the volumetric, only apparently deep in the background—in fact, the vanishing point is positioned on the surface of the work, and all compositional lines are composed to point to it, to intersect where it lies, resulting in the visual conviction that space and all apparent objects in apparent space are receding. Instead, Gunderson has created a technique whereby the lines of reflected light intersect at a point in the air between the painting and the viewer—or rather, at a continuum of points, each one determined by where the viewer stands, and at each point, the image forms itself. Put differently, she has substituted a focal point for the vanishing point.

There is a further effect of this technical innovation, and it is extraordinary. As one moves before the painted surfaces and the images shift and transform themselves—like a sculpture, or a hologram carved in laser light—one begins to sense tactile qualities of the image; one begins to feel the image with the fingertip of the eye. You start to sense the tangible qualities of the clothing and the objects—their hardness or softness, the warmth of textiles, the coolness of the stones in the wall, the sleek and skirting, knife-edged brush of the metals. This is what Gunderson calls “the haptic”—a scientific term for the quality of touch. With this effect, she achieves the synaesthetic bridge—the point at which one caliber of sensory stimulation transforms into another, the point at which vision creates the impression of tactility, as if you were literally reaching out and grasping the image with your hand. It is a rare and extraordinary achievement, for synaesthesia—the transformation of one sense into another—was an artistic effect sought by many of the artists, as well as the writers, of the early days of Modernism. It engages all the senses together, moving the viewer of art into a state of altered sensation, and to a heightened degree it infuses the materials out of which art is made with the spirit of aesthetic perception, with the awareness of having been transported to a place beyond the ordinary experiences of life, with the feeling of the more lilting existence.

The works in this exhibition are fully developed examples of Gunderson’s innovation, and they beautifully illustrate the effects she strives to achieve. Queen Isabella, 2003, and King Philip II, 2003—two Spanish monarchs Gunderson has chosen from her series of kings and queens to honor her first solo exhibition in Spain—convey remarkably tactile impressions and demonstrate the range of effect Gunderson can achieve by modulating her technique.

Queen Isabella is executed with an intricacy of method, with a precise complexity of brushed incisions, which renders a broad range of greys and of nearly tangible qualities of surface. The tonalities run a complete spectrum of values, from the pure black of the cross on the sail of the small model of Columbus’s ship the Santa Maria—which she is holding as a symbol of her sponsorship of Columbus—to the almost pure white of the sky in the window behind her. Her dress has the palpable smooth thickness of taffeta. The robe that falls over her arms seems to shimmer with mass, like samite. The globe upon which she cups her right hand is hard and round. It feels as if it were prepared to rotate of its own will, out of its own inner impulse. Her expression changes as you move towards her—from a distance, it bears a regal dignity; at a closer view, it takes on a joyous and radiant smile, a smile of pure joy and kindliness.

King Philip II is rendered with a stronger and bolder hand. The portrait has less intricacy of line and effect than Queen Isabella—it has, rather, a quality of high contrast and of vigorous decisiveness. With fewer intermediate tones, Gunderson strikes the extremes of pure black—in the background that seems to swallow all available light, reflecting nothing back—to the gleaming pure whites on his figure. There is a metallic, glinting shimmer to King Philip’s armor—which is adopted from his 1551 portrait by Titian, who painted for the king many of his masterpieces, including Venus and Adonis, 1553-1554, and The Rape of Europa, 1559-1562. And, the painting carries the same capability of varying impression as Queen Isabella. In a stunning effect, the light through the window behind King Philip changes when you change your viewpoint. Standing at a normal height, it is of a pale cast. Lower your view, look up from below, and the seeming sunlight increases to such a degree that, from the right standpoint, it is almost blinding.

As with all of Gunderson’s extraordinary series of monarchs, these two portraits render their subjects with a tangible authenticity and deep symbolic import, drawing their exemplary historical figures from the darkness into the light with such strength of impression, the figures seem to be archetypal images emerging from the unconscious mind—images of fundamental psychological structures and meanings, images representative of values essential for the organization and guidance of the ego. It is an appropriate application of her technique, making the invocation of an image out of blackness something more than a master stylist’s parlor trick.

Nevertheless, in many senses, Gunderson’s floral works are subjects more appropriate still. In the several sunflower paintings and the two smaller orchid paintings, the technique of incising light into the black paint is taken to its full range of expression. These works have a complexity of application of the brush that goes beyond anything else I have seen in Gunderson’s work. The very architecture of the sunflower is an ideal for the artist’s innovative style—the circular radiation of petals, the arching center of the flower, the cylindrical stalk, and the gesticulating leaves give Gunderson every angle of incision, they demand of her every vector of light reflection. The constantly changing direction of surface in every portion of the structure of the flower calls for everything Gunderson can do with paint. In particular, the orchids are encapsulations of her style, nearly symbols of the style itself. Orchids, as Gunderson shows us, are continuous interweavings of floral structure. The two paintings, in their densely set linear rendering, so tightly woven together that the works seem almost to be of fabric, are intricacies of swirling illumination. They bristle with the petalling of light.

Even as subject matter, the flowers are ideal symbols of Gunderson’s innovation, for they are creation out of the soil. Flowers arise as life from the inert material of the earth, as a fusion of dull matter and animating spirit, just as their images emerge from the black backdrop of the artist’s null hue, just as they emerge from the working of the artist’s hand—as art, fusing together the soil and the soul, delivering the image as an incarnation of the creative energy.

And so it is First Crucifixion, 1990—the centerpiece of the exhibition—that is the hallmark and touchstone of Gunderson’s work, for its subject is the very symbol of the incarnation of spirit in body, of soul in the material of the world, the material that is the earthly portion of us. For here is the ultimate image of the redemption of our divided natures, and Gunderson executes it as such. The body of Christ is fashioned in a craggy and elongated muscularity. There is a hard density to the mass of his torso. Though the figure is that of the pure incarnated Spirit, there is more body in it than anywhere else in this exhibition. The cross conveys the sheer deadness of weight. The grain of its wood is nearly carved into the paint, almost raked into the light that reflects from the painting.

And against the heaviness of the figure, there is the swift movement of the light that seems to radiate from behind it, almost backlighting the form on the cross. This circle of light swarms like a maelstrom, like a whirlpool of pure dynamism, of pure energy, of disembodied force. Where the torrent of illumination hits the edges of the figure of Christ, there are crashes of power, like storm waves hitting the shore, like the spuming, flailing corona of an eclipse. Only here, the figure is not interrupting the light—it is emanating from it. This is a form being swirled together out of the torrent, out of the maelstrom of immateriality, out of the whirlpool of molten light. The light and the figure, the spirit and the material form, are one.

And for all its massive density, the figure itself is pure dynamism, or incarnated energy. Where the king and queen are iconic, the lines that render them contributing qualities of surface, the lines of the Christ figure are those of motion, as active as the lines of the tunneling light. Everything about this figure races. The complex architecture of the body vibrates with movement. The hips and the belly ripple with layers of musculature that roll over each other like lapping shallows. The left thigh is furrowed by a joining of muscle masses that carves its way up the cliff-face of its anatomy. The left shin is a cyclone of pure, illuminative but darkling forces. The tautness of the form becomes the near madness of an energized torrent. And for all the hard, intricately defined construction of the form, the face is almost immaterial, almost undefined of features. It is nearly light without form, a form that is bleached out of the haptic of tangibility by the sheer power of its center, the center than coincides with the center of the circle of light, the funneling of light that is focused no longer in the space between you and the painting, but that is now aimed directly on you, as if you were staring straight into a light source, as if you were staring directly into the source of creativity itself—staring into the heart of the spirit, into the glittering heart of light.

What follows the crucifixion is, of course, the resurrection, which is the final symbolic implication of Gunderson’s image and the accomplishment of her art. As her method pulls the image out of the darkness and into light—as it renders images carved in light, as it braids the fire in the air—so it returns art to art and renews the mode of fusing the hand and the spirit, it remakes the physics of the soul. Hers is an art of light palmated, light touched and modeled by the hand of the artist, and in First Crucifixion, we see the very source of creation creating itself, emerging in the splendor of sheer brilliancy, dynamic even as it becomes fixed in a form. It remains a pouring energy, furious in its force even as it is kindly, as kindly as the face of Queen Isabella can be, achieved in a brightness that falls from the air—a benign fury. This is not merely art made of light—the art of Karen Gunderson is light formulated as the image of art itself, as the image of a self-creating creativity. It is a rare achievement, something we receive only from a master, only from an artist whose work is the very source of illumination.