DONALD KUSPIT: New Old Masters: National Museum In Gdansk, Department of Modern Art-Abbots’ Palace in Oliwa: 2006-2007
Karen Gunderson paints in black, with bold, sweeping yet meticulous gestures. There’s a silvery sheen to her paintings- the surface picks up light, both absorbing and reflecting it. Matisse regarded black as just another color, while Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings suggest that it is the epitome of negativity, mystically conceived. For Gunderson it is neither a color nor a mystified negativity: it is a way of subjectifying objects while making them more emphatically objective-indisputably the case- than they would ordinarily be. What makes Gunderson’s paintings unusual is that she uses pitch black to bring out the radiant life in nature- a paradoxical achievement, all the more so because black is denaturing. The blackness gives her flowers and mountains and a haunting immediacy. Stripped of color- reduced to shadow- they became more emotionally charged than they were when they had familiar colors, that is, the colors of life. They have become hadean ghosts, but they are vividly alive in consciousness.Gunderson’s frames have an ornamental, floral quality that echoes, however distantly, the fluid shapes of nature. This is particularly evident with the Grand Sunflowers, 2004. The flourishing ornament of the frames for Chinese Peonies and Orchids, both 203, seem to extend their flourishing ad infinitum into the space. The unity of frame and image is also evident in Paiju Peak. The frame is as angular as the peak. One might add that the sublime black signifies the inner sublimeness of the natural world, even as her flourishing frames suggest that it is inexhaustible, if under the threat that the black also represents.