JONATHAN GOODMAN: Art In America: Karen Gunderson at Donahue/Sosinski: July 1999
Karen Gunderson’s large black-on-black oils of five kings- Christian X of Denmark, David of Israel, Louis XIV of France, Alfred the Great of England and Boris III of Bulgaria- commemorate leaders especially known for their social awareness. Each of Gunderson’s portraits describes a man who, according to catalogue essayist Donald Kuspit, was “an authentically courageous hero- a true role model in bleak times.” Her project carries with it an implicit criticism; we surmise that her choice of these men suggest a dissatisfaction with current leaders.
Gunderson has chosen to paint her memorials entirely in black, a color with funeral connotations but one which can take on a heightened, abstractly dramatic intensity. It also has a strong place in modern and contemporary art- one thinks of the all-black paintings of Ad Reinhardt, or of Minimalist sculpture. Gunderson uses black, however, not for morbid or theoretical associations but to intensify feeling. The absence of hue dramatized her thematic materials.
She has been able to use black alone by varying the application of paint; the images catch and reflect light, creating nuance and contrast within the single color.
Usually, one doesn’t think of black as being able to mirror illumination; however, in King David (1997), Gunderson as constructed images of horizontally aligned ridges of paint which bounce light back towards the viewer. The background reflects light in this way, as do the shield with the Star of David on it and the mane and the markings if the lion and the warrior king’s feet. Here the black paint invests the figure with resolve but focusing all the painting’s energies on the person.
Danish King (1993) is a portrait of the ruler who intervened with great courage on behalf of Jews during the Second World War. Astride a horse, painted with horizontal brushstrokes, the kind is shown as a man of strength, wearing an outsize Star of David on his chest. King Alfred the Great (1998) depicts the medieval king studying; Gunderson recognizes his cultural importance for commissioning the translation of Latin texts into (Old) English, thus becoming England’s first literary patron. Bearded, reading a book, King Alfred appears sympathetic and scholarly. In her depictions of these men, Gunderson has found a way of expressing symbolic meaning and staunch purpose.