Karen Gunderson

GERRIT HENRY : Night Garden: Sunflowers: Spring, 1994

In myths, in legends, in fairy tales, the usual journey undertaken by the hero takes him from darkness to light, from ontological mystification to psychological clarification.  Karen Gunderson—who is, after all, not a fairy-tale dragon-slayer but a gifted, late-20th century painter –has, apropos of the topsy-turvy times we live in, chosen the opposite route.  Her “cloud paintings” of the 1980s beamed with cerulean blue skies, intense sunlight, and ever-sunny clouds, thought that particular weather was stratospherically out of sight, made plain to the earthbound viewer through both Gunderson’s objective observations from air travel and subjective, preternaturally celestial visual imagination.

The clouds and sun are gone now:  Gunderson’s vision has shifted from light to dark, day to night.  Since 1989—when the late, brilliant sculptor Jonathan Silver caught a glimpse of an all-black Gunderson primed for an overlay of clouds and indicated, “This is it!”  -- she has been working on a new series of “night gardens,” roses or tulips or zinnias or even a lilac tree in a glorious sable bloom, painted in oils in shades of blackest night.  Drawings from life in charcoal come first; these are eliminated completely by an overlay of dense black verticals.  Gunderson finally works her flowers over with a comb, then paints flowers, stems and leaves over in black with a large, thick brush.

The final results are both vitally painterly and profoundly elegiac, intensely virtuosic and utterly elemental.  The series of nine “night sunflowers” at hand are the most ambitious Gundersons to date.  Can flowers grow in the dark?  Not most.  But what about sunflowers?  Here, in these lyric, heroic black canvases, this species more than must maintains; it flourishes, in wild, wet, wonderful daubs of thick pigment, heavy impasto, and judicious gestural abandon.  They absort light; they deflect light; they reflect light.  Just so, metaphorically, they reject the economic, social, cultural and political darkness that seems, in these beleaguered, millennial ‘90s, to be affecting so many of us.  Gunderson’s flowers don’t give in:  They aestherically advise against a reactive depression, and strongly advise for a resolute hope.  That is their nature;  That is perhaps their purpose; and that is their very being.  Gunderson’s existential nocturnes are a surprise, a puzzlement, and a wonder, much like life itself, now or then.  Finally, in her hands, black becomes a color.