Karen Gunderson

CINDY NICKERSON: Cape Week: Cape Cod Times Magazine: Friday August 24, 1990

A Breakthrough in Black: Artist finds a new way to express herself

Wellfleet- Lots of people, lying on their backs looking up at the sky, have imagined endless pictures in the clouds.  But New York artist Karen Gunderson imagined endless pictures of  clouds – just clouds – and painted them for 25 years.

Although Gunderson likes clouds, her main purpose was never to capture the wonders of the cumulus or the cirrus – although viewers, to her frustration, often saw her works that way.  For her, clouds were a vehicle that let her explore the mysteries of paint.

Two years ago, Gunderson let the clouds sail by. 

She had recently begun starting her cloud paintings with base paintings of black.  One day a friend, a sculptor, stopped by her studio while she was still at the “black” stage on a painting, and he admired It the way it was.  “it started this whole new world,” said Gunderson, who summers in Wellfleet with her husband and son.  “I’ve done this huge series now of black paintings.”

Her first show of works in this new series is on display through Sept. 1 at Cherry Stone Gallery on East Commercial Street in Wellfleet.  The paintings are sharing wall space with sculptors by Jack Carter, a New York artist who has spent the last two winters as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.  Cherry Stone is open noon to 6 p.m.  Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Gunderson’s “black painting’s” take a few different forms, but at their most radical, they are painted totally and utterly in juicy black oils.  What keeps them from all looking like those black post cards that say “Night on Cape Cod,” however, is texture, executed elegantly and with great care.  With brushes and other tools, the artist has made grooves in the paint that catch the light and, so, reveal images.

Gunderson’s cloud paintings are filled with light,  the black paintings at first seem like a big departure.  But, the artist noted, her new works are realty “all about light.  It’s like painting with light.  The light is how you see your painting.”

If the paintings had been hanging at a less prestigious gallery than Cherry Stone, I might have dismissed the, as gimmicky.  But there was Gunderson, bubbling over with enthusiasm as she talked about them, so I set myself to find out what the excitement was all about.
Soon, I became intrigues with how her big “Still Life” of a bowl of fruit on a table looked like it had a lot of brown or (sometimes) blue in it, and with how the forms seemed to change as I moved around the gallery.  The painting had an almost sculptural look to it.

This was even true for the small painting “Whale Study.”  From some distances and angles, the whale image looks like it protruded from the background a good half inch, though the paint there was no thicker.  In the picture “Two Women,” some of the highlights were so striking it looked like the artist must have added points of white paint.  But she hadn’t.

Gunderson has also taken the concept in a couple of other directions.  In a number of flower paintings and a landscape of Higgins Pond in Wellfleet, she reflectively added color to her textured black backgrounds.  This sometimes has the unfortunate effect of recalling paintings on black velvet, though Gunderson’s brushwork is on another plane entirely.  But the landscape, in which the colors are blended more softly, has a very pleasing atmospheric quality.

In other works, Gunderson reverses the process, beginning with a textures base of white paste, then lightly brushing on grays and blacks so that the paints catch on the irregularities of the surface.  Two paintings of dunes at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet have a kind of glow and monumentality.  Rather like her clouds.

Gunderson’s “black” series is fascinating as an artistic investigation.  Especially with her all-black paintings, the artist is doing something quite novel.  But some of the works – again, the all-black ones in particular – don’t have much emotional impact.  Their images are a little empty, and a razzmatazz technique can fully compensate for ho-hum content.

Of course, the paintings at Cherry Stone represent a new artistic language for Gunderson – a language she’s just beginning to use.  It’s likely she’ll get more eloquent as she goes along.

Cindy Nickerson writes about art for the Cape Cod Times.